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

She Lived Here, Too: Fanny Corbusier

The Fort Mackinac Soldier’s Barracks in the 1880s.

  For a brief time, from April of 1882 until September of 1884, Fanny Dunbar Corbusier and her family lived at Fort Mackinac. She and her family thoroughly enjoyed their time on the island, which was already a tourist destination. While living on Mackinac Island, Fanny and her family took advantage of the island’s natural beauty and social scene to engage in activities familiar to modern visitors.

  Fanny was born in 1838 in Baltimore, but also lived in Louisiana and Maryland as a child. She was an active part of her church, wherever she lived. Public service was important to her and she served as a nurse during the Civil War. At the age of 30 she met and married William Henry Corbusier, a military contract surgeon. He was one of many northern soldiers occupying Mobile, Alabama with the army after the war. Together, they enjoyed a 49 year-long marriage and raised five sons. The marriage plunged Fanny into the transient life of civilians attached to the army, moving from station to station as William was transferred to different posts.

  At various times, Fanny and the family lived in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, the Philippines, the Dakota Territory, Wyoming Territory, Kansas, Colorado, Virginia, Indiana, California, New York, Nebraska, Alabama and of course Michigan. Their extensive travels were facilitated by regular long-distance train trips. The growing national railroad network allowed the army to move troops (and associated civilians like Fanny) quickly and easily around the country.

  Within the small, close-knit army community, William’s position bestowed a level of social prestige upon Fanny. Officers and their families were generally quartered in larger, nicer homes, separate from the enlisted soldiers. Fanny had, and expected to have, servants to help her with cooking, laundry and other chores. She hired a nurse to assist with her first baby and at various times employed off-duty soldiers, Chinese workers, and Indigenous people to work in her household. Fanny hired a woman named Carrie Greatsinger to work as a nurse for the children before moving to Fort Mackinac.

The Hill Quarters at Fort Mackinac.

  Regardless of where she lived, Fanny took the education of her children seriously. As a child, she attended the Hannah More Academy in Maryland, where her mother was principal. While raising her own children, she made sure that they always had access to education. At Mackinac, her younger children attended classes in the Fort Mackinac reading room, where Sgt. Fred Grant and Pvt. Crawford Anderson served as teachers. In addition to school, while on Mackinac Island Fanny also “sent for all of the histories and romances of Mackinac that were ever published” and read with her family about Alexis St. Martin, Dr. William Beaumont, and John Tanner.

  Fanny and William shared a lifelong interest in nature and spent time observing “the superb moonlight night” during their winters on Mackinac. In the fall they ”saw the island in its best array. The woods were gorgeous in the vari-colored trees and shrubbery, and then the aurora borealis in all its splendor would sometimes be seen.” Fall on Mackinac Island is still one of the most beautiful sights in Northern Michigan.

  Fanny Dunbar Corbusier left Mackinac Island in 1884 after experiencing it in much the same way as countless others of the past and present. Her life only brought her back one more time in 1892. She visited with old friends and went for “lovely drives” to see what had changed. If you would like to learn more about the experiences of Fanny Corbusier and the other women who called Fort Mackinac home in the 18th and 19th centuries, check out our website for details on how to visit. Also consider joining Mackinac Associates, a friends group that makes it possible for us to interpret Fanny’s life as well as countless other facets of Mackinac’s rich history.

The Company of Fort Mackinac Descendants

Fort Mackinac ca. late 1890s

Genealogy, the study and tracing of one’s lines of descent or ancestry, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Document-rich sites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and MyHeritage.com, contain billions of records that help individuals discover their family roots. The resources created to serve genealogists are extremely useful to professional historians looking to learn more about the human history of their fields of research.  In writing The Soldiers of Fort Mackinac, An Illustrated History, Phil Porter, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director, spent countless hours on Ancestry.com looking for information about the men who served at the island fort.   (more…)

Fort Mackinac: A Century of Military Service to the Country

Veteran’s Day is the Federal holiday which encourages Americans to take a moment to reflect upon and honor the sacrifices of every generation of Americans that have served the country in the Armed Forces from its inception to the present. The holiday originated as a proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to commemorate the cease fire which signaled the end of the “war to end all wars,” World War I, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as Armistice Day. In the words of President Wilson, “the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…” This serves as a powerful  description of what the holiday today known as Veteran’s Day is intended to reflect in commemoration of those who have served the country and it’s ideals in the military not only during WWI but over the course of the nation’s entire history. (more…)

Grand Army of the Republic, Post No. 289

Grand Army of the Republic, Post No. 289

The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the United States Army, U.S. Navy, Marines and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War. Founded in 1866 it grew to include hundreds of local posts. The G.A.R. served as a political advocacy group for various causes including establishing regular pensions and helping to make Memorial Day a national holiday. Membership peaked in 1890 at more than 490,000. The G.A.R. was dissolved in 1956 at the death of its last member. (more…)

What’s new at Fort Mackinac?

What’s new at Fort Mackinac?

It may not seem like it with so much snow on the ground, but summer is steadily approaching. With less than two months to go before Fort Mackinac opens for the 2019 season, we’re hard at work on two brand new exhibits which will greet visitors to the fort this summer. (more…)

The Treaty of Greenville: August 3, 1795

The Treaty of Greenville: August 3, 1795

On August 3, 1795, the Revolutionary War on the western frontier finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Greenville. This treaty signaled the end of British control of Mackinac Island, and heralded the American occupation of Michigan. Although the Treaty of Paris of 1783 formally ended the war between the American colonists and the British, the indigenous residents of what would become the United States had not been consulted. As a result, the Revolution evolved into the Northwest Indian War, fought between Americans pouring westward over the Appalachian Mountains and the plethora of indigenous nations known as the Western Confederacy. (more…)