Cedars and Everlastings: Mackinac’s Amazing Evergreens

Dr. Carlos Carvallo

“The Island of Mackinac, three and a quarter miles long and two miles wide, though not the largest is the most picturesque and inhabited of the small group constituting the archipelago of the Straits of Mackinac… It is girded by limestone battlements and cliffs, which rise abruptly 100 to 150 feet above the surface of the water… The hills are covered with a dense growth of cedars and everlastings, which appear to extend from the water’s edge to the summit of the island.” Dr. Carlos Carvallo, Fort Mackinac Post Surgeon (1873)


Roots of an eastern white cedar span an outcrop of limestone along Quarry Trail in Mackinac Island State Park.

  In every season, visitors to the Straits of Mackinac are amazed by the varied shapes, forms, sizes, and habits of the numerous species of conifers that grow in this region of the North Woods. Venture out and you’ll discover towering white pines, pointed spires of spruce trees, dense thickets of eastern white cedar, and soft needles of fragrant balsam fir. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in the company of hemlocks whose dark canopy nearly shuts out the light of day, or enjoy a sun-filled stroll while prickly juniper bushes scratch at your ankles.

  For centuries, travelers to this region, including Dr. Carlos Carvallo, have commented on such “cedars and everlastings” while documenting their observations of the Island. Below are a few favorites to enjoy during your next Mackinac adventure.

Balsam Fir

  If it suddenly smells like Christmas, you’re likely in the company of balsam fir trees. This medium-sized evergreen may grow 65 feet tall or more, but dozens of saplings may also create impenetrable, brushy stands. Bark of young trees features bumpy “resin blisters” which tend to spray when ruptured, resulting in a sticky (but delightfully-smelling) encounter with nature. Since the mid-1800s, small sachet pillows, filled with dried balsam needles, have been sold on Mackinac Island as souvenir keepsakes.

 Canada Yew

  This native evergreen grows as a low, spreading shrub, especially in wet areas. A shade-lover, yews are common in northern portions of Mackinac Island, particularly under the canopy of cedar and balsam fir trees. Yew cones consist of a highly-modified scale, known as an aril, which ripens to resemble a soft, bright red berry that remains open on one end. Yew seeds are a favorite food of thrushes, waxwings and other birds. Look for them near Croghan Water Marsh.

Northern White Cedar

  If there is one dominant feature of the northern Michigan landscape, it just might be the cedar tree. Early French traders referred to this species as arborvitae, or “tree of life” due to its medicinal properties, including a high dose of vitamin C used to prevent scurvy. Cedar’s fragrant needles, pliable bark, and rot-resistant wood have been utilized by Native Americans for making containers, canoe paddles, medicine, and ceremonial rites for millennia.

  Small cedar cones turn from green to brown as they ripen in early autumn, releasing tiny seeds which are essential for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife. Cedar needles, scaly and evergreen, are the most important winter food for deer and also provide shelter when cold descends and snow blankets the North Woods.

Ground Juniper

  Juniper loves both sand and sun. A low-growing, shrubby evergreen, this species grows very slowly and can live up to 300 years. Their fleshy cones look like small green berries and have been used in the distillery process for centuries to give gin its distinctive flavor. Landowner Michael Dousman (1771-1854) once ran a distillery near his large farm on north-central Mackinac Island, possibly producing this herbaceous spirit. Junipers don’t tolerate shade, but are abundant in the sun near the Island’s airport. Several specimens also enjoy a view of the Straits overlooking Robinson’s Folly.

White Spruce

  Not pretentious, white spruce are comfortable in the shadows. Slow-growing and long-lived, their pointed crowns eventually pierce the tree canopy like church spires dotting a country landscape. Spruce needles, while similar in length to those of balsam fir, are stiffer and project from every surface around each branch. In contrast, fir needles only grow from each side of the branch, like tiny wings.

  Spruce cones are noted for being an especially important food source for birds, including both red and white-winged crossbills. As their name implies, crossbills are named for their unusual beak, perfectly adapted for flicking seeds from ripe conifer cones. Standing beneath a tree as a flock of crossbills feeds above is a memorable experience, as a cloud of discarded seed fragments swirl through the air like tiny brown snowflakes. Red crossbills were once a common nesting species on Mackinac Island. In recent decades, both red crossbills and their white-winged cousins still visit the Island in winter.

 Eastern White Pine

  It would be a sad miscarriage of piney justice if a blog about evergreens failed to include the State Tree of Michigan. Historically, this “King of the Forest” reached 300 years of age, growing nearly 200 feet tall with trunks up to six feet in diameter. While the 19th century lumbering clear-cut the vast majority of old growth giants, a few scattered stands and large individuals remain. White pines mature quickly, sometimes adding more than two feet of new growth per year! This species is less common on Mackinac Island than other evergreens, though scattered specimens (including several large ones) can still be located along many trails and roadsides. Several historic guidebooks referred to Forest King, “a magnificent pine tree which excites the admiration of all who behold it” on the trail to Arch Rock.

  An excellent way to appreciate white pines was expressed by author Anna Botsford Comstock in her Handbook of Nature Study (1911). She wrote, “The needles of the pine act like the strings of an ӕolian harp; and the wind, in passing through the tree, sets them into vibration, making a sighing sound which seems to the listener like the voice of the tree. Therefore, the pine is the most companionable of all our trees and, to one who observes them closely, each tree has its own tones and whispers a different story.”

  The evergreens above represent just a few of the “Cedars and Everlastings” you’ll find while exploring Mackinac Island and the surrounding region. During your next visit, you’ll just need a trail map, your walking shoes, and an adventurous spirit. Trees of the North Woods are ready to whisper their stories to us. We only need remember how to listen.

#thisismackinac

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