Really an Underground Stem

  • Stems above ground, which is the most usual form for them, are of many kinds, all serving the purpose of support to the leaves and flowers, and as a means of carrying sap from the roots or underground stems to the upper part of the plant, and also to carry certain foods to the roots from the leaves, of which more anon. In the case of herbs, like goldenrod or daisy, the stem may be apparently all pith on the inside, with only a thin outer coating of harder substance, not unlike bark, but usually green. If we examine the cut-off trunk of a tree, a quite different structure is apparent. Any lumberman can point out at once “heartwood” and “sapwood”, and his distinctions are just as good as those of the scientist, for he says in these two words as plainly as can be said that heartwood is the oldest and sapwood the youngest. The sapwood is nearer the bark and is honeycombed with passages which serve to carry the sap from the roots to the tree top, while just under the bark is the bright, green, living layer, known as cambium, which is renewed each year. The phloem is the carrier for the food made in the leaves to the roots. It is the successive layers of cambium, year after year, that gives to tree trunks their annual rings. The age of almost all trees can be reckoned exactly by counting these, one representing a year’s growth, and the tree’s rate of growth estimated from the closeness of the rings. Fires or droughts, perhaps long forgotten, here find a lasting record in rings so close together as to be all but invisible. The part nearest the center of the trunk is the heartwood, usually quite lifeless, yet in its maturity furnishing us with lumber. It may be and often is completely decayed, without injuring the flow of sap or the life of the tree for many years.

  • The stems of some plants, such as the Big Trees of California, for instance, are among the oldest and most permanent of living things. “General Sherman,” one of the biggest in that most famous grove, was nearly three thousand five hundred years old when Columbus discovered America; it has lived through all the great periods of modern history, and to-day it is over 270 feet high and 35 feet in diameter. No living thing is so large or has lived so long. In Australia are great forests of blue gum trees even taller than our Californian Big Trees, but not so old nor so thick.