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Roots go deep to support tall trees

October 13, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

TREES have a tough job to do, particularly to stay alive throughout all kinds of weather conditions. For those times when strong winds blow, large brace roots normally hold the tree upright against most wind events. Periodically, however, a strong enough wind or tornadoes can exceed the ability of any tree to support itself. For today's photo subject along the bank of the Iowa River, it has a story to tell of a long life already lived. And it is not down yet. It will cling to life in this somewhat precarious perch for a long time into the future.

Trees endure drought conditions, and other years with long periods of high flood water. Then there is an Iowa winter, long and cold. Deciduous trees of all species that are native to our midwest climate have been around for thousands of years. They live their lifespans, waking up each spring with new leaf buds and blossoms, full leaf canopies during the summer and fall, and then as photosynthesis processes in the fall curtail production of chlorophyll, its leaves become a brilliant spectrum of colors that delight our eyes. Another winter is coming and it is time for the tree to "sleep" until next spring.

In his program about the History of Iowa Forests, Iowa DNR forester Joe Herring asks this true or false question to his audience. "Iowa's original landscape was mostly covered by prairie grasses?"

Article Photos

A tremendous root system is exposed for this red oak tree adjacent to the edge of the riverbank near the MCCB’s public area, the Forest Reserve. Decades of high water flow, ice debris injury and soil erosion have exposed the root system that supports this 100 foot tall tree. The complexity of the root system tells us that there is an entire network of forest tree life below the soil that we never see. A multitude of brace roots hold the tree upright while a finer network of shallow roots much closer to the soil surface take up nutrients and water.

The answer is false. Why? Actually the question is a trick because one has to identify geological past time frames to know what existed before. Over the last 350,000,000 years and more, Iowa has been at the bottom of warm shallow salt water oceans more than it has been dry land. And for those times it has been above water levels, a wide range of pre or post glacial environments have come and gone repeatedly. About 350 million years ago, Iowa was a carboniferous coal swamp. Coal seams under Mormon Ridge can attest to that.

If we fast forward to 10,000 years ago, the land was exposed from recently (geologically speaking) retreated glacial ice. Plant life trying to take root in those exposed soils were tundra plants at first, then over long time frames, spruce and sedges ruled. As the climate continued to naturally warm even more, a transition took place to deciduous oaks, hickory, ironwood and elm. The climate continued to warm as the glacial age passed, and at 4,000 years ago, trees did not compete as well but tall grass prairie plants found this to their liking. Trees did continue to thrive along water courses. Prairie grass fires kept tree "invasions" at bay on the open uplands. Indians used fire to keep green grasses in place for bison herds that periodically meandered over the plains. And they did this for thousands of years before settlers came upon the scene. Humans have been modifying the landscape ever since. In the last 150 years we continue to adjust and manage the landscape to fit our present needs.

Trees, in one sense, are a bit of history in the making, telling us what works and what doesn't over the long span of annual weather that is dry one year and wet the next. Each page in the history book of a tree is recorded in its growth rings. As trees live their lives and die, new trees take their place and they add new pages to the history book of time. Today's photo of tree roots partially exposed along the river are there to give us a glimpse of a few pages in that tree's time line.


The IOWA RIVER is as low as anyone can remember. A check of the website for the Highway 14 gauging station shows a very low flow rate of only 43 cubic feet per second. Perhaps, just maybe the rains predicted for today will help bring a bit more flow to the river. For sure the land will be plenty thirsty to soak up whatever falls from the sky. Good timing has a lot to do with the success of a rain dance.


UNION GROVE STATE PARK need help. You can help in this case by a contribution of funds to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. A recent land acquisition took place northwest of the lake. Through this parcel of land, 40 percent of the lake's watershed flows. By seeding the rolling land to prairie grasses and construction of small wetlands, soil losses from further upstream can be contained. That will prolong the life of the lake, a vital long term goal. Even though conservation efforts exist at other sites around Union Grove, this new key parcel fills an urgent need for lake protection. Contact Anita Ogara at for details on how you can help. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is a private conservation organization that has been tremendously helpful for many past conservation projects in Marshall County. Union Grove is certainly within our sphere of influence as many local citizens use the park and its lake. Please help. Thank you.


SAND LAKE will get a stocking of rainbow trout at 11 a.m. on Oct. 20. DNR fisheries folks do raise trout specifically for fall stocking in urban center borrow pit lakes, storm containment lakes, or other waters. Fall water temperatures have dropped to levels that this put-and-take fishery can add to the excitement for local folks. Two thousand trout will be released. Two hundred of them will have special tags. If and when a person catches a tagged trout, the tag can be redeemed for a prize from local sponsoring businesses.

A trout stamp fee is required for adults wishing to keep trout they catch. Purchase that item at any DNR outlet for electronic licensing services. You may also call John Steinbach at 751-5246 for specifics of licenses or fees that do or do not apply to kids ages 15 or less. Trout stocking at Sand Lake will become an annual event from now on. Enjoy.


DEER season begins Saturday for 7,500 Iowa residents who are early muzzleloader license holders. That season continues through Oct. 21. Statewide stats show that archers and youth have taken more than 3,400 doe deer, 1,800 buck deer and 441 button bucks since their respective seasons opened. Marshall County deer hunters have reported about 22 doe deer, nine bucks and one button buck.


Coming up on Oct. 20, from 2 to 4 p.m., will be a seminar related to the tricks of the trade for calling COYOTES. This wild member of the canine family is more abundant than we know. Larry Sills, also know as TheDuckMaster will be the presenter. The Albion Fire station is where the meeting will be held. The public is invited to learn about site selection, locating howls, scouting techniques in early and late winter and the use of mouth and electronic calls. There will be plenty of time for questions and answers. Coyotes are very adaptable and have learned how to live within some urban centers as well as the open countryside.


The IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE is going digital for its newsletters to its members beginning Jan. 1. The cost of convention mail permits and postage is getting to be too much. So, for any Ikes member, and there are 241 of them for the Marshall County chapter, make sure to have a current valid e-mail address on file with the club's membership officer Bob Backes at And this item for potential memberships for Christmas Gift Certificates can be obtained from Richard Kelly by calling 641-482-3000 or email him at


Ask the Game Warden: Is driving any motorized vehicle such as an ATV in the Iowa River bed or other low water streams legal? Answer: No. Iowa code sections 462A.34A and Iowa administrative codes 571-49.2 and 571-49.4 apply. River systems and the aquatic life within them do not need the disturbances or damages caused by wheeled vehicles. Steinbach can assist you in this regard to stay legal. Tickets can get expensive. Call him at 751-5246.


Fundamental to ethical hunting is the idea of FAIR CHASE. This concept addresses the balance between the hunter and the hunted. It is a balance that allows hunters to occasionally succeed while animals avoid being taken. Many of the terms of the hunt are dictated in conservation laws applied to hunting scenarios. When a person becomes a hunter, you leave the world of make-believe for the real world.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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