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Growth Of A Tree

( Originally Published 1927 )



The great chestnut tree on the hillside has cast its bur-den of ripe nuts, flung down the empty burs, and given its yellow leaves to the autumn winds. Now the owner has cut down its twin, which was too near a neighbor for the well-being of either, and is converting it into lumber. The lopped limbs have gone to the woodpile, and the boards will be dressed and polished and used for the woodwork of the new house. Here is our opportunity to see what the bark of the living tree conceals—to study the anatomy of the tree—to learn something of grain and wood rings and knots.

The most amazing fact is that this "too, too solid flesh" of the tree body was all made of dirty water and carbonic-acid gas. Well may we feel a kind of awe and reverence for the leaves and the cambium—the builders of this wooden structure we call a tree. The bark, or outer garment, covers the tree completely, from tip of farthest root to tip of highest twig. Under the bark is the slimy, colorless living layer, the cambium, which we may define as the separation between wood and bark. It seems to have no perceptible diameter, though it impregnates with its substance the wood and bark next to it. This cambium is a continuous undergarment, lining the bark everywhere, covering the wood of every root, and every twig as well as of the trunk and all its larger divisions.

Under the cambium is the wood, which forms the real body of the tree. It is a hard and fibrous substance, which in cross section of root or trunk or limb or twig is seen to be in fine, but distinctly marked, concentric rings about a central pith. This pith is most conspicuous in the twigs.

Now, what does the chestnut tree accomplish in a single growing season? We have seen its buds open in early spring and watched the leafy shoots unfold Many of these bore clusters of blossoms in midsummer, long yellow spikes, shaking out a mist of pollen, and falling away at length, while the inconspicuous green flowers developed into spiny, velvet-lined burs that gave up in their own good time the nuts which are the seeds of the tree.

The new shoots, having formed buds in the angles of their leaves, rest from their labors. The tree had added to the height and breadth of its crown the exact measure of its new shoots. There has been no lengthening of limb or trunk. But underground the roots have made a season's growth by extending their tips. These fresh rootlets clothed with the velvety root hairs are new, just as the shoots are new that bear the leaves on the ends of the branches.

There is a general popular impression that trees grow in height by the gradual lengthening of trunk and limbs. If this were true, nails driven into the trunk in a vertical line would gradually become farther apart. They do not, as observation proves. Fence wires stapled to growing trees are not spread apart nor carried upward, though the trees may serve as posts for years, and the growth in diameter may swallow up staple and wire in a short time. Normal wood fibres are inert and do not lengthen. Only the season's rootlets and leafy shoots are soft and alive and capable of lengthening by cell division.

The work of the leaves has already been described. The return current, bearing starch in soluble form, flows freely among the cells of the cambium. Oxygen is there also. The cambium cell in the growing season fulfils its life mission by absorbing food and dividing. This is growth—and the power to grow comes only to the cell attacked by oxygen. The rebuilding of its tissues multiplies the sub-stance of the cambium at a rapid rate. A cell divides, producing two "daughter cells." Each is soon as large as its parent, and ready to divide in the same way. A cambium cell is a microscopic object, but in a tree there are millions upon millions of them. Consider how large an area of cambium a large tree has. It is exactly equivalent to the total area of its bark. Two cells by dividing make four. The next division produces eight, then sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, in geometric proportion. The cell's power and disposition to divide seems limited only by the food and oxygen supply. The cambium layer itself remains a very narrow zone of the newest, most active cells. The margins of the cambium are crowded with cells whose walls are thickened and whose protoplasm is no longer active. The accumulation of these worn-out cells forms the total of the season's growth, the annual ring of wood on one side of the cambium and the annual layer of "ark on the other.

What was once a delicate cell now becomes a hollow wood fibre, thin walled, but becoming thickened as it gets older. For a few years the superannuated cell is a part of the sap wood and is used as a tube in the system through which the crude sap mounts to the leaves. Later it may be stored full of starch, and the sap will flow up through newer tubes. At last the walls of the old cell harden and darken with mineral deposits. Many annual rings lie between it and the cambium. It has become a part of the heart wood of the tree.

The cells of its own generation that were crowded in the other direction made part of an annual layer of bark. As new layers formed beneath them, and the bark stretched and cracked, they lost their moisture by contact with the outer air. Finally they became thin, loose fibres, and scaled off.

The years of a tree's life are recorded with fair accuracy the rings of its wood. The bark tells the same story, but the record is lost by its habit of sloughing off the outer layers. Occasionally a tree makes two layers of wood in a single season, but this is exceptional. Sometimes, as in a year of drought, the wood ring is so small as to be hardly distinguishable.

Each annual ring in the chestnut stump is distinct from its neighboring ring. The wood gradually merges from a dark band full of large pores to one paler in color and of denser texture. It is very distinct in oak and ash. The coarser belt was formed first. The spring wood, being so open, discolors by the accumulation of dust when exposed to the air. The closer summer wood is paler in color and harder, the pores almost invisible to the unaided eye. The best timber has the highest percentage of summer wood.

If a tree had no limbs, and merely laid on each year a layer of wood made of parallel fibres fitted on each other like pencils in a box, wood splitting would be child's play and carpenters would have less care to look after their tools. But woods differ in structure, and all fall short of the woodworker's ideal. The fibres of oak vary in shape and size, They taper and overlap their ends, making the wood less easily split than soft pine, for instance, whose fibres are regular cylinders, which lie parallel, and meet end to end without "breaking joints."

Fibres of oak are also bound together by flattened bundles of horizontal fibres that extend from pith to cambium, insinuated between the vertical fibres. These are seen on a cross-section of a log as narrow, radiating lines starting from the pith and cutting straight through heart wood and sap wood to the bark. A tangential section of a log (the surface exposed by the removal of a slab on any side) shows these "pith rays," or "medullary rays" as long, tapering streaks. A. longitudinal section made from bark to centre, as when a log is "quarter-sawed," shows a full side view of the "medullary rays." They are often an inch wide or more in oak; these wavy, irregular, gleaming fibre bands are known in the furniture trade as the "mirrors" of oak. They take a beautiful polish, and are highly esteemed in cabinet work. The best white oak has 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. of its substance made up of these pith rays. The horny texture of its wood, together with its strength and durability, give white oak an enviable place among timber trees, while the beauty of its pith rays ranks it high among ornamental woods.

The grain of wood is its texture. Wide annual rings with large pores mark coarse-grained woods. They need "filling" with varnish or other substance before they can be satisfactorily polished. Fine-grained woods, if hard, polish best. Trees of slow growth usually have fine-grained wood, though the rule is not universal.

Ordinarily wood fibres are parallel with their pith. They are straight grained. Exceptions to this rule are constantly encountered. The chief cause of variation is the fact that tree trunks branch. Limbs have their origin in the pith of the stems that bear them. Any stem is normally one year older than the branch it bears. So the base of any branch is a cone quite buried in the parent stem. A cross-section of this cone in a board sawed from the trunk is a knot. Its size and number of rings indicate its age. If the knot is diseased and loose, it will fall out, leaving a knot hole. The fibres of the wood of a branch are extensions of those just below it on the main stem. They spread out so as to meet around the twig and continue in parallel lines to its extremity. The fibres contiguous to those which were diverted from the main stem to clothe the branch must spread so as to meet above the branch, else the parent stem would be bare in this quarter. The union of stem and branch is weak above, as is shown by the clean break made above a twig when it is torn off, and the stub-born tearing of the fibres below down into the older stem. A half hour spent at the woodpile or among the trees with a jack-knife will demonstrate the laws by which the straight grain of wood is diverted by the insertion of limbs. The careful picking up and tearing back of the fibres of bark and wood will answer all our questions. Basswood whose fibres are tough is excellent for illustration.

When a twig breaks off, the bark heals the wound and the grain becomes straight over the place. Trees crowded in a forest early divest themselves of their lower branches. These die for lack of sun and air, and the trunk covers their stubs with layers of straight-grained wood. Such timbers are the masts of ships, telegraph poles, and the best bridge timbers. Yet buried in their heart wood are the roots of every twig, great or small, that started out to grow when the tree was young. These knots are mostly small and sound, so they do not detract from the value of the lumber. It is a pleasure to work upon such a "stick of timber."

A tree that grows in the open is clothed to the ground with branches, and its grain is found to be warped by hundreds of knots when it reaches the sawmill. Such a tree is an ornament to the landscape, but it makes inferior, unreliable lumber. The carpenter and the wood chopper despise it, for it ruins tools and tempers.

Besides the natural diversion of straight grain by knots, there are some abnormal forms to notice. Wood sometimes shows wavy grain under its bark. Certain trees twist in growing, so as to throw the grain into spiral lines. Cypresses and gum trees often exhibit in old stumps a veering of the grain to the left for a few years, then suddenly to the right, producing a "cross grain" that defies attempts to split it.

"Bird's-eye" and "curly maple" are prizes for the furniture maker. Occasionally a tree of swamp or sugar maple keeps alive the crowded twigs of its sapling for years, and forms adventitious buds as well. These dwarfed shoots persist, never getting ahead further than a few inches outside the bark. Each is the centre of a wood swelling on the tree body. The annual layers preserve all the inequalities. Dots surrounded by wavy rings are scattered over the boards when the tree is sawed. This is bird's-eye grain, beautiful in pattern and in sheen and coloring when polished. It is cut thin for veneer work. Extreme irregularity of grain adds to the value of woods, if they are capable of a high polish. The fine texture and coloring, combined with the beautiful patterns they display, give woods a place in the decorative arts that can be taken by no other material.



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