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Why Do Some Trees Grow in Spirals?

437px-Lodgepole_pine_spiral_grainI noticed a funny thing out in the woods the other day. I came across a fallen log, its bark long stripped away by the gleaning of industrious birds and mammals. The exposed wood, rather than running in straight furrows from end to end, spiraled around the trunk, helix upon helix from end to end. I was mystified. If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and trees in a forest are under intense competitive pressure to reach the canopy as quickly as possible, why would a tree ever spend precious energy and resources growing in circles? What could possibly make a tree behave so strangely?

As with many natural phenomena, a lack of a definitive explanation provides fertile ground for speculation, and theories abound as to why some trees take on this curious growth form. A couple of likely reasons are:

Spiral growth is beloved by photographers for the beautiful curves to be found in the bark and wood of the trees. Sawmills, on the other hand, are not so pleased to see a spiral-grained log in their yard; the wood is often weaker and spiral-grained boards often twist as they dry. Despite the reduction in the raw strength of the wood itself, spiral growth gives a tree greater flexibility than its straight-grained neighbors, making the tree more resistant to high winds or heavy snow loads.

Another possible cause for spiral grain is to better distribute water around the tree. In straight-grained trees, the needles (or leaves, though spiral growth is more common in conifers) share water, photosynthate, and nutrients with the roots directly below them. If the roots or branches were to be damaged on one side of a straight-grained tree, the corresponding roots and branches would wither. A spiral grain, on the other hand, allows resource sharing all around the tree, distributing water from a single root to branches all around the tree, and sugars made in the leaves on a single branch to all the roots. By distributing water and nutrients evenly, a spiral-grained tree can more easily survive periods of drought or windstorms, as well as the chronic stresses of growing in dry, windy areas. Unsurprisingly, spiral grained-trees are often found on dry ridgetops where the twin forces of exposure and dessication are at their greatest.Bristlecone pine in particular, famous both for its longevity and for its habitat high on the windswept Sierras, often exhibits spiral growth.

A few other theories involve genetics, heliotropism (tracking the sun), the Coriolis effect (which causes the clockwise pattern of winds and ocean currents in the northern hemisphere, and mechanical torque from prevailing winds. What do you think?


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About Richard Campbell

Richard joined the League’s staff in 2012 as the Conservation Science Manager. He brings nearly a decade of experience in forest management and restoration.



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6 Responses to “Why Do Some Trees Grow in Spirals?”

  1. Lance

    The Coriolis effect really only affects large systems and isn’t strong enough to affect something as small as a tree. Just play with a drain sometime, you can get the whirlpool to go both ways. Additionally I’d argue that trees can change their growth pattern throughout their lives. It probably has more to do with unbalanced nutrient absorption via roots in poor soil and extreme wind/weather stressing the tree. This page does a pretty good job of quickly summarizing some of the research that has been done. If anyone knows of actual primary source material that would be great. https://www.conifers.org/topics/spiral_grain.php

    Reply
    • peter van sommers

      the reason that tree bark spirals consistently in one direction in the southern hemisphere and the opposite in the north arises from the direction of the sun’s apparent movement in the two hemispheres. Since each day the light falling on the tree throughout its growth swings from right to left or left to right and the plant , following the sun to gain maximum exposure twists one way or the other. At first I thought it was something about the species of tree since I first noticed it in a grove of similar tree species near our home showing the one effect while nearby a few trees of a different type grew straight. However as time passed I saw that dozens of species all going in the same direction here in Australia and there were absolutely zero growing as northern hemisphere trees do. So, unless someone else has dropped onto this mechanism, let’s call it the “vanS” effect to do honour to this 88 year-old nature lover.
      Peter van Sommers (vanS!)
      Background: neuropsychologist, Harvard PhD, Visiting Scientist at Cambridge, Oxford, the Sorbonne and elsewhere and now a painter, printer, photographer and garden-lover.

      Reply
  2. Jayashree

    The coriolis effect seems to be the most probable answer. The best way to test it would be to see if all these trees twist in one way in one hemisphere, and the opposite way in the other hemisphere, preferably far from the equator .
    If any one does indeed check this out, pl post it here for all to know

    Reply
  3. Tom Adams

    I think the spiral growth in cedars(etc) is to convert oscillatory(linear) movement to rotational movement. In a shallow rooted tree, this would help to prevent wind induced toppling. Let me know what you think of this theory. Spiral growth would decrease linear growth(height) and therefore put the tree at a seeming disadvantage. There must be a powerful advantage in spiral growth to overcome this. Let me know what you think of this hypothesis.

    Reply
  4. Antony Branfoot

    Heliotropism seemed likely when most trees I have seen here spiral up and to the right but I have seen the reverse on a few and wondered if they came from the southern hemisphere but did not identify which they were. If it were true that there is a reversal across the Equator, we might have solid evidence for phototropism.

    Reply
  5. Luke

    I enjoy the variety of redwood tree growth habits. Most grow very straight, but I’ve seen many spiraling redwoods. The rarest grain is the wavy grain.

    Reply

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