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Frustration – trees

August 6, 2007 pm31 3:50 pm

I know the names of lots of trees: maple, elm, oak, ash, poplar, fir, pine, aspen, locust, birch, beech, cherry, apple, peach (is that all the pies?) and a whole bunch more. But can I tell one from another?

I know what oak trees look like from leaves, but not from bark or trunk. And I cannot tell red oak from white oak from black oak from swamp oak (or did I make that last kind up?). I do know Holly Oak from the other, but that one hardly looks like the others.

I can tell maple trees from plane trees by the bark on the trunk or the seed ‘helicopters.’ I cannot tell red from Norway from sugar maple.

I know a willow from the shape of the tree and shape of the leaves. I know a linden when the paper-tape seed thingies are out. I might know the leaves. I think I know the flowers. I know white birch from the bark.  I might know other birches from their leaves.

I know cherry trees from the cherries. Ditto lots of fruit trees. I can often tell that a tree is a fruit tree, without knowing what kind of fruit. I know date trees from their smell and leaves, even without the fruit. I can usually tell mulberry trees from the leaves, even without the berries.

But look, there is way too much I don’t know. I was riding through Bulgaria thinking, whoa, those are gorgeous, what kind of trees are these? The center of the capital is lined with, are those chestnuts or horse chestnuts? I couldn’t tell you an elm tree if it fell on me, don’t know what a poplar is. What do ash leaves look like? Couldn’t even tell for sure if I was looking at peaches or plums. At a distance, the shape of those trees is so distinctive. Cedars?
Not knowing trees is a form of cultural illiteracy, and I am certain it is growing.  I don’ t think my (urban) students know as much as I do, not even close, and I felt ashamed of how little I know. So, a new project. I’m going to learn something about trees, starting with those growing in the Bronx.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. JBL permalink
    August 6, 2007 pm31 5:40 pm 5:40 pm

    “And I cannot tell red oak from white oak from black oak from swamp oak (or did I make that last kind up?).”

    Oaks fall into two families (actually, a bad word choice: “group” is maybe better), the red (or black) oaks and the white oaks. In general, red oaks have pointier, more deeply grooved leaves, while the lobes on white oaks tend to be smoother and less deep. Red and black oaks (after which their group is named) are similar and quite difficult to tell apart — in general, oaks within the same group are difficult to distinguish without acorns to compare. The acorns of red oaks are high in tannic acid, which means they aren’t edible right out of the shell (you’d have to soak in boiling water before you’d want to eat it). White oaks, with the exception of chestnut oaks, have less tannic acid and so (apparently — I’ve only tried red oak) are more palatable. Swamp oaks are one member of the white oak group.

    Fruit trees are very recognizable because most of them are quite closely related. Cherries, almonds, peaches, plums and apricots all belong to the genus Prunus in the rose family. Apples, pears and quince are in separate genera but also in the rosaceae.

    The Bronx is a great part of the city to look at trees, what with the NY Botanical Garden and the loads of other parkland up there. It helps if you know where to look. I picked up the book whose URL is below on a whim at a bookstore once — it has a number of suggested “tree walks” and, for each type of tree listed, it suggests good places in the city to go to view them.

  2. JBL permalink
    August 6, 2007 pm31 5:47 pm 5:47 pm

    Two more things: plant identification gets much more difficult after you start switching continents. It’s possible that the trees you’re looking at just aren’t grown in the U.S.

    The way to identify a (“true”) cedar is by its cones: they point straight up from the branches, looking a little bit like a weapon of some kind. (They also explode: each cone grows over the course of several years. When they reach maturity, the freeze-thaw cycle in winter causes the sap in them to expand and contract, and eventually they blow up. It’s there seed dispersal mechanism.) Red cedar and white cedar that we have in America aren’t actually related to the Mediterranean cedars at all (and, I think, are not related to each other).

  3. August 7, 2007 am31 5:03 am 5:03 am

    OK, ready? I found two copies of the Barnard book sitting on my shelf. And an Eastern US tree book by Grimm. The trees in Sofia were undoubtedly horse chestnuts, I have already learned. And I think I saw magnificent groups of lindens and white birch.

  4. JBL permalink
    August 7, 2007 pm31 11:54 pm 11:54 pm

    Hahaha. Well, you made a good purchase (twice!). Things I particularly like about the Barnard book are that it’s slim enough to fit into a pants pocket (and indeed, if you really want to identify trees, I think the only way to go about it is to carry an identification book around with you whenever you go out walking) and its NYC-centeredness, with the suggested walks, suggestions on where to go to find each type of tree, etc.

    If you really become obsessed, I also recommend “The Tree,” by Colin Tudge.

  5. August 8, 2007 am31 1:57 am 1:57 am

    Carrying Barnard in my pocket makes sense. I’ll need to do some NYBG and Van Cortlandt Park walks, along with the normal paying attention to street trees that no one I know ever does.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    October 24, 2007 am31 2:47 am 2:47 am



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