The elongation and branching of long positive spark discharges in the laboratory and in lightning have been attributed to the formation of thermalized channels inside a diffuse, glow-like streamer section at the leader head. It is experimentally shown here that the structured morphology of streamers produce low-density stem channels that elongate and branch well before a new leader channel section is formed. These non-thermalized stems are also shown to develop ahead of a developing leader channel. These findings are based on high-speed photography and Schlieren imaging used to visualize both the morphology of streamer filaments and stem channels. Numerical analysis is also performed to estimate the axial temperature and density of the stem channels. A stem-driven mechanism for the propagation and branching of positive long air gap discharges is proposed and discussed based on the presence of not-yet thermalized, low density channels formed by streamer ensembles at the leader head.