Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winter Tree Identification: What's the Point?

Why learn to identify trees? Because it greatly enhances one's appreciation of a walk in the woods and it allows a much better understanding of forested ecosystems. But why in the winter? Because, in deciduous forests, leaves are more often on the ground than attached to a tree and so we may as well use the numerous other clues that are available throughout the year (and that are particularly prominent in winter).

Below are just a few tree I.D. features that we noticed on a recent hike. This should convince even the most curmudgeonly of the utility and excitement of winter tree I.D. and may set the stage for more tips on down the trail.

May as well start with the Indiana State Tree, the Tulip. Tulip is in the same family as the magnolia and we all can picture the wonderfully showy flowers of the latter. Well, tulip has similar flowers, a bit smaller, but we don't notice them because - in the forest - they are born at the tops of tall, mature trees. But sometimes we get lucky and a flower-bearing branch reaches down to get our attention. In the photo below, notice the tan clusters scattered about the branch of a tulip. These are the seed clusters that persist long after the flower petals have been-and-gone.

We also have a handy way to confirm our initial I.D. - the distinctive buds (where next springs leaves and/or flowers are staging themselves). Tulip has buds that remind one of a ducks' bill.

Here's a fun one. Black Walnut has distinctive brownish and stout twigs - but take an even closer look and...

...you'll be delighted by a leaf scar (where the leaf was formerly attached) that looks a bit like a monkey's face! See it?

But, you ask, "what if the tree is too tall to access a twig/bud?". The answer is "the bark". Bark (texture, color,etc.) is probably the most useful and accessible tree I.D. feature. Who would find it difficult to recognize the wonderfully unique bark of the American Sycamore?

There's no easier-an-I.D. than Blue Ash. It's the only native tree we know of that has square, yep, square (in cross section) twigs! It's quite satisfying to bumble across some blue ash and know, truly know, that you're looking at blue ash. Blue ash is known to do well on sites/soils with a relatively high pH so, when you have blue ash, you might want to be also thinking, "limestone".

Some trees hold onto their leaves well into the winter. If you see a tree like the one pictured below you might first want to think "American Beech" like we did. In many instances you'll be correct. But this one illustrated the adage, "there are no absolutes" because closer inspection revealed this tree to be an Ironwood. Most clues, while not absolutes, at least lead one down the right path to a correct I.D.

American Basswood - we don't know of any other native forest tree around here that has such vibrantly red and bulbous buds. An easy one, we think.

If you see a shrub/small tree with a green twig and oppositely-arranged bulbous greenish buds you've likely got a Spicebush. It's pretty common in the understory of Beech-Maple forests. Lightly rub the twigs and then smell your fingers to reveal a wonderful scent and to confirm your I.D.

Red Oak: pointy, angled buds that are clustered on the end of the twigs:

Cylindrical, tapered, pointy buds: American Beech:

Brownish "paint-brush" buds: Pawpaw:

Bitternut Hickory takes the prize for "most distinctively-colored bud" with an incredible sulphur or mustard-colored bud.

By now you should be convinced that the key to enjoying winter may well be linked to enjoying trees in winter! If so, grab a field guide, get out there and appreciate the beauty and diversity of our forests.

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