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Twiggy witches' brooms aren't just for Halloween

I'll start off with a Halloween theme this week. Orange: Helen Marsh has been seeing orange fox squirrels in her yard on Big Mantrap Lake. Witches: I have a witches' broom in one of the balsam trees near the house. I always wondered about the mas...

I'll start off with a Halloween theme this week.

Orange: Helen Marsh has been seeing orange fox squirrels in her yard on Big Mantrap Lake.

Witches: I have a witches' broom in one of the balsam trees near the house. I always wondered about the mass of twigs, and as I was reading about willow rose galls a month ago, I realized the broom was a kind of tree gall.

The witches' broom is a good 2 feet across and grows out of a branch about 4 feet off the ground. I have never seen any leaves or needles on the witches broom - it appears to be dead, though the tree itself is alive. The broom does not seem to have affected the overall health of the tree, since the tree is the same size of its neighbors and has healthy looking branches.

But the dense mound of twigs is hard to miss. After doing some research on the Internet about witches' brooms, I think this particular gall may be caused by fir broom rust, or the fungus Melampsorella caryophyllacearum.

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According to the Natural Resources Canada Web site, this fungus results in "an excessive proliferation of twigs from a single point on a branch." Though the fungus rarely kills trees, it can reduce growth.

I'm not entirely sure if this is what ails my balsam, however. Another Web site said that when just one broom is found on a tree, the cause may be genetic. As far as I can see, there's just one broom.

In any case, it's easy to see why the common name for this type of tree gall is witches' broom. The twigs grow so tightly together they look like they are bound.

Christmas

There's another holiday connection to witches' brooms, however, and this one has to do with Christmas. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the branches of trees, also forming witches' brooms.

We have two different kinds of native mistletoe here in the US, according to a US Geological Survey Web site. One is the white-berried variety that we put up "hopefully" in doorways, and the other is dwarf mistletoe, which is found from Florida to Alaska.

It's this second variety that Kathy Belt wrote to me about in late July.

"Do you know if dwarf mistletoe (witches broom) ever grows near the base of the tree?" she asked. She then described a plant that was "a foot and a half off the ground" and completely encircled the trunk of a spruce tree.

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"It looks like a bunch of dead branches," Kathy said, "but has succulent sprouts with red 'pimples' on them."

I don't know if Kathy's witches' broom resulted from the mistletoe plant or was a gall produced by another irritant, but judging from the images I found on the Internet, dwarf mistletoe can completely ring a tree trunk.

Birds love 'em

Mistletoe and other witches' brooms aren't all bad, however. Many birds like to nest in them, including house wrens, mourning doves, chickadees, Western tanagers and hermit thrushes.

In fact, the word mistletoe comes from the fondness birds have for nesting in this particular kind of witches' broom. "Mistel" means dung in Anglo-Saxon and "tan" means twig, so mistletoe is actually "dung-on-a-twig." The name must refer to all the bird droppings that could be found on these popular nesting spots.

And that's why I'm going to leave my witches' broom right where it is. No doubt someone really likes it, and it doesn't seem to be hurting the tree.

Kinglets

Golden-crowned kinglets were passing through the Lake Emma Township area Oct. 17. Bluebill ducks and trumpeter swans are also being spotted in the county. I see a bald eagle somewhere along the Lake George Road or Highway 71 nearly every time I drive to Bemidji.

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Helen Marsh and Marlene Weber (of Spider Lake) have been seeing red-bellied woodpeckers in their yards. Marlene said that for 10 or 11 years a red-bellied stayed with them through the winter and she hopes the one she spotted recently will do the same.

Marlene also said she and John have been entertained by an immature sharp-shinned hawk who likes to chase blue jays through their yard.

"The little birds go away when the sharpie comes," Marlene said, but the blue jay seems to enjoy eluding the hawk. After leading the hawk on a chase the blue jay will "wiggle and jiggle" Marlene said, as if he were "proud of himself."

Thanks to all who wrote with news. When sending your reports, be sure to give your name and a little information on where you made your sighting. Send to maureeng@unitelc.com .

This column is brought to you by Park Ace Hardware.

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