Picture Ohio! Roots on the Rocks

Birch Roots, Hocking State Forest
Birch Roots, Hocking State Forest

During a recent visit to Hocking State Forest, south of Logan, I was exploring some sandstone cliffs near Big Pine Road, and came upon an amazing collection of tree roots cascading down a sandstone cliff that was covered in green mosses and lichens. It was a dark, overcast day, and I felt as if I had been transported to the forests of Mirkwood or Fangorn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Fortunately no orcs or goblins appeared as I set up my camera and tripod to make some images.

Birch Roots, Nelson Ledges State Park, Portage County
Birch Roots, Nelson Ledges State Park, Portage County

What causes these tree roots to embrace the rock face, like the tentacles of an octopus? In a nutshell, the roots are the result of the birch tree’s search for sustenance and support.

The birch trees shown in the photos above grew from seedlings that germinated in the thin layer of soil covering the sandstone rock at the top of the cliffs. As the trees grew, they quickly exhausted the nutrients in the soil nearby, and roots were sent snaking down the rocks on a quest for more soil, which tends to accumulate on the horizontal ledges that occur on the rock face. The tree roots penetrate the rock strata wherever they can, then send out new roots to continue their quest down the rock face until the deeper soil at the base of the cliffs is reached. In addition to providing nourishment for the tree, the roots also stabilize and support the tree’s trunk and help it to survive storms and strong winds.

Birch Roots, South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks
Birch Roots, South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks

Many of these birch roots have anthropomorphic features, as shown in the photo above, which was taken near the Miles Road entrance to South Chagrin Reservation west of Chagrin Falls. Do you see the arms, one of which has a hand reaching into the ground? Do you see the leg, complete with a stiletto heel? Notice how some of the birch roots have forced their way through the rock strata into the Berea sandstone cliff.

Birch Roots near East Branch of the Chagrin River, South Chagrin Reservation
Birch Roots near East Branch of the Chagrin River, South Chagrin Reservation

A different process appears to have taken place in the photo above, which was taken near the Quarry Picnic Area in South Chagrin Reservation, less than a mile from the preceding photo. In this case the rocks and soil over which the roots grew have been eroded away by high water from the East Branch of the Chagrin River, creating an extensive aerial root system.

I believe that the birch trees shown in the four photos above are Black Birch, Betula lenta, also known  as sweet birch or cherry birch. The other possibility is Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis. Black birch and yellow birch both occur in northeast Ohio as well as the Hocking Hills, but yellow birch bark tends to be lighter and flakier than the darker and smoother bark of black birch. If any Ohio expert botanists (e.g. Daniel Boone, Rick Gardner, Brian Riley, Andrew Lane Gibson) would care to comment on or correct my tentative IDs, please feel free to do so.

Eastern Hemlock Roots, South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks
Eastern Hemlock Roots, South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks

The cool, moist microclimates favored by yellow and black birch in eastern Ohio are also home to the Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, and this tree also occasionally produces extensive root systems, as shown in the image above, taken near Sulphur Springs Picnic Area in South Chagrin Reservation.

Look for these distinctive tree roots along sandstone cliffs in northeast Ohio, the Hocking Hills, and Black Hand Gorge State Nature Preserve in Licking County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Close Menu