Monday, January 27, 2014

What I Learned About Trees - Part 1

 I was surprised to learn that winter tree identification is not done using only the bark but mainly the buds.  The bud is produced by the tree in the fall.  Inside is the baby leaf, just waiting to burst open in the spring.  I found that a very profound piece of information.  The tree is not a cold, lifeless piece of wood, bracing itself through the winter darkness.  It's ready and waiting, knowing that the sun will return.  I think that is a beautiful picture of hope, especially for the Christian who is awaiting Christ's return.  No matter the difficulties on this earth, God has placed His Spirit and Life within us, and we know that someday the Son will return.
"Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
    let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
    let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
    he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples in his faithfulness."  Psalm 96:11-13
This may seem a strange thing to do, but when my mind is bogged down with the cares of this world and especially when my thoughts become very self-centered, identifying things - whether insect, bird or tree - helps draw my mind to the things of Christ. 
"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."  Phillipians 4:8
So.  Onto those true things...
Here is a link to diagrams and vocabulary, so you know what I'm talking about.
This is a green ash.  It can be identified in winter by its blocky, soft bark.  You can press your thumbnail into.  I remember that by thinking of a pile of ashes; they're soft.  If you look at the twig, you can see that the leaf scars are opposite one another.  Also, you should be able to find twigs opposite each other on the branches. Buds will be hairy, not scaled.  Bud scars that are more smile-shaped indicate a white ash.  D-shaped ones belong to the green ash.
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 Sweet gum is easily identified by the prickly fruit balls hanging on it.  The twigs are also winged.  The buds are pointed and scaled.  Three bundle scars.
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Ironwood or Musclewood or even American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) has strong, twisted wood.  It looks gray, smooth, and muscley.  It has alternate leaves, many times remaining attached to the tree throughout winter. 
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 Buds are small.  Look closely at the bud at the end of the twig.  See how it goes off to the side?  That's called a pseudoterminal or axillary bud.  The two buds above are terminal buds, since they come straight off the end of the twig.
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Doghobble is a shrub, one of three broadleaf evergreens in the park.
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The American beech has smooth bark and keeps its leaves.
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Buds are long, thin, and pointy.
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We saw lots of Eastern Hemlocks, identified by very short, flat needles.  This was a particularly large one.  The wooly adelgid has killed many of these trees.
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Two oaks. The one on the left is a Northern Red Oak.  The one on the right is Chestnut Oak, a species of white oak.
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This pointy leaf belongs to the Northern Red Oak.  The bark is lined in vertical "ski tracks".  The acorn cap is scaly and small compared to the nut.  It sits atop the acorn like a little beret. These acorns germinate in spring.
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The Chestnut Oak has leaves with rounded tips and blocky bark.  The acorn cap is deep, thin, and has knobbly warts.  White oaks germinate in fall.  If you find an acorn with a hole in it, it's been eaten by a weevil.
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Pignut Hickory has tight furrows on the bark.
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It grows tall and straight.  You can see the small twigs growing alternately.  Terminal buds are shaped like a Hershey Kiss and are scaly.
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Red Maple has opposite leaves and twigs.  They tend to have lots of lichen growing on them.
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This very pretty bud belongs to the Oilnut, a shrub.  In the fall, the leaves do not change color.  They wilt and hang on the plant for a while, then fall off. Pioneers would press the oil out of the nut and mix it with tallow for candles.  Since the oil is toxic, it kept critters from eating the candles.
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Sweet Birch has catkins, spur shoots, and horizontal lenticels on the bark.  If you break off a little branch, it smells like wintergreen.
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We only talked about this little tree in passing, so I don't have details. The interesting thing about this one is that the common name, ironwood or hophornbeam, is the same as the muscley Carpinus caroliniana above, but it's in a whole separate genus.  This one is Ostrya virginiana.
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The samaras on this tree tell us it's a maple.  The greenish bark with vertical white stripes indicate the species Striped Maple.
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The last tree for this post is Sourwood.  It's easy to identify by the fruit capsules hanging in fingerlike clumps, but those had already fallen off.  The bark is blocky and the tree grows in crazy angular patterns.  It can be confused with sassafrass, which appears redder than sourwood.
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Can you here those trees singing?


  1. Sarah- I enjoy your blog so much--brings back so many memories of walks with Grampa K and the many trails we walked across the US. I thought I could identify trees until he would correct me --I think he was born loving God's creation, just like you. He would be so proud of you, just as I am. Gramma K

  2. Good to hear from you, Granny. It sure was a lovely hike.

  3. I'm really enjoying your tree posts! I've got a tree here that we've been having a difficult time identifying. maybe you can help out someday.

  4. I'm currently studying for a huge tree identification test tomorrow. It's been stressful, so it's really cool to see how what I've been studying ties to the Bible and creation. Thanks for the uplifting message I really needed, along with some information I can use tomorrow! Awesome to see people who appreciate nature's role in our relationship with God.