Heartwood is the dead center of a tree. It is usually a different color from the living wood and it provides the support needed to hold up a tree that might weigh several tons
Tree trunks are made up of several layers of tubes, surrounded by an outer layer of bark. These tubes are the vascular bundles that carry water and nutrients to the rest of the tree. One type of tube, called the xylem (or sapwood), pulls water and nutrients up from the roots. The majority of the trunk is made up of xylem cells. Another type of tube, called the phloem (or inner bark) carries the sugars made by the leaves through photosynthesis down into the rest of the tree. [I remember these two by saying, “Food flows down the phloem, while water and food rise in the xylem.”]
Just between the xylem and the phloem is the cambium layer. This is where the actual tree growth occurs. At the very center of the tree is the pith, surrounded by layers of xylem cells. As these xylem cells age, they eventually go through chemical changes that make them solid, losing their ability to transport water and nutrients. There is debate about whether or not these cells are still alive. This is the heartwood.
Characteristics of heartwood
Heartwood is very strong. The amount of heartwood present depends on the species. Some trees, such as ash, maple, and pine, have very thick heartwood. Other species have only a little heartwood. This group includes chestnut, mulberry and sassafras trees. Some tree species have no heartwood at all.
Heartwood gets larger over time. Young trees have very little heartwood, whereas older trees have significantly more.
Heartwood is resistant to decay, but wood that looks like heartwood might also be infected with disease or dealing with an insect invasion. Louisiana homes built over 100 years ago out of of bald cypress heartwood appear to be as good as new because of the decay resistance of heartwood.
The next time you need to remove a large branch or tree trunk, take a closer look at the layers and see if heartwood is present.
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