Article #180, February 2012
By Bill Cook
What’s the most common tree in Michigan? Sugar maple! Followed by red maple, cedar, quaking aspen, and red oak. These five species make-up nearly half the volume in the forest. In fact, if you can identify the ten most common tree species, you’ll know three out of four trees you run across.
However, these species do not have geographically even distributions. Sugar maple, cedar, and red oak are rather particular about the site upon which they will grow. On the other hand, red maple and quaking aspen occupy a wide spectrum of sites and grow almost anywhere. Tamarack is common in the north, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tulip poplar above mid-Michigan.
Various sites support different mixes of tree species. These mixes are called forest types. There are 36 forest types in Michigan, according U.S. Forest Service definitions and inventory data. Throughout these 36 types are 72 tree species recorded, although you could probably find more.
Forests cover about half of Michigan, although their distribution is mostly a northern land cover. Much of the southern Michigan forest has been replaced by farms and cities. The twenty million acre forest resource is one of the largest and richest in the United States.
The most common Michigan forest type is “northern hardwoods”, where nearly half the volume is sugar maple. Common associates in northern hardwood types include red maple, basswood, beech, yellow birch, and hemlock. Two-thirds of the northern hardwood acreage lies in the Upper Peninsula. No other U.P. forest type comes close in frequency, although the next most common forest type is cedar.
In the Northern Lower Peninsula, northern hardwoods is also the most common forest type, but aspen and oak types come close. Red oak and bigtooth aspen become a common northern hardwoods associate, which are less common in the U.P. northern hardwoods.
The Northern Lower Peninsula oak types are largely composed of red oak, white oak, red maple, black oak, and northern pin oak. These five species make up over three-quarters of the volume in oak types.
The Northern Lower Peninsula aspen type consists mostly of bigtooth aspen, quaking aspen, and red maple. White pine and red oak are reasonably well represented, too.
The majority of pine forest types (red, jack, white) occur in the Northern Lower Peninsula, about a million acres. Half of this is red pine. Among the pine types, most of the jack pine and red pine volume is found in its respective forest type. However, the majority of white pine is mixed with other forest types, such as red pine, aspen, northern hardwoods, and oaks.
The forest types with the greatest number of tree species are aspen, mixed upland hardwoods, and northern hardwoods. Forest types with the fewest tree species are swamp conifers and the pines. However, this varies by region. The western U.P. forests are much different than the southern Michigan forests, even within the same forest types.
The set of most common tree species in the eastern and western U.P. are different. Both of the U.P. sets are different than those in the Northern Lower Peninsula, and the Southern Lower Peninsula has yet another set. All four sets differ from the statewide top ten. For example, even though sugar maple is the most common tree species, statewide; it ranks number eight in the southern counties.
While statewide average statistics sometimes have value, it’s important to understand that averages cannot describe variability across the landscape, nor will they necessarily describe what’s around your town.
Forest composition is but one factor in defining the diversity of Michigan’s forest. However, it well demonstrates the variability. The complex nature of our forests becomes clear when other factors are added-in, such as age classes, stand densities, patch sizes, size classes, and physical structure. And that’s just talking about the trees.
A forest owner needs to know about their particular forest for better appreciation or to manage the forest. Forest enthusiasts can delight in the variability across the state. And, of course, forest management practices will vary almost as much as the forest does.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: email@example.com
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