Archive for the 'Winter Weeds & Trees' Category

Jan 18 2012

Winter Trees: Red Oak

If you’ve traveled around the country you may have noticed there’s a different mix of trees outside of Pittsburgh.  Compared to other parts of North America, southwestern Pennsylvania has few pines and spruces, no white birches (unless planted) and no mangroves.  But we do have a lot of oaks and hickories.

Pittsburgh’s habitat type is the oak-hickory forest, the widest ranging deciduous forest type in eastern North America.  Oak-hickory forests are dominated by oaks and hickories (of course) and are home to birds and animals who eat the acorns and nuts: blue jays, wild turkeys, gray squirrels,  fox squirrels and eastern chipmunks.

The northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and eastern black oak (Quercus velutina) are indicator species for the oak-hickory forest.  Both are in the red oak group, are very similar and even hybridize. For purposes of this simple tree guide I’ll help you recognize “red oaks.”

All oaks produce acorns and have a cluster of buds at the tip of the twig. In eastern North America oaks fall into one of two groups: reds and whites. Here are the differences between them:

  • Red oak group:
    • Leaves have pointed or bristly tips on each lobe
    • Buds have pointed tips and are larger than white oaks’ buds
    • Acorn cup scales are brownish and flat; the cup is hairy inside
    • Bark is generally dark, smooth or ridged but not peeling
  • White oak group:
    • Leaves have rounded lobes
    • Buds are blunted, rounded and generally smaller
    • Acorn cup scales are knobby and paler; cup is not hairy inside.
    • Bark is paler, peeling from higher trunk and branches, looks as if it was rubbed off at the base of the tree.

Notice in the photo above how the buds are clustered at the tip and are pointed.

Red oak bark is dark and doesn’t peel.  Even though it has ridges, the ridge tops still have a smooth appearance.

 

Oaks have bumper crops of acorns every few years on a cycle that’s determined by species.  Red oaks cycle every 3-4 years; white oaks every 4-10 years.  This abundance and scarcity causes a fluctuation in those who eat the acorns, too.

Sometimes you can recognize oaks from afar because their crowns are massive, wide and spreading.  Here’s a red oak seen from a distance in Schenley Park.

 

Interestingly, the red oak is the dominant oak in Schenley Park and often has a reddish tinge in the bark’s furrows or on the surface.  I’m not sure why or even if this tinge is diagnostic.  (See the slight reddish tinge in the bark furrows above.)

(photos by Kate St. John)

No responses yet

Jan 11 2012

Winter Trees: Norway Maple


No discussion of western Pennsylvania’s trees would be complete without including the Norway maple (Acer platanoides).

As its name suggests this tree is native to Europe, growing as far north as Norway, south into Greece and Iran, east into Russia.  It was brought to North America as an urban shade tree because it survives well in compacted soil and air pollution.

Unfortunately it survives too well.  The Norway maple naturalized on this continent and easily became invasive because it releases chemicals in the soil that inhibit the growth of underbrush and native saplings.  In addition, native animals and insects prefer to eat North American maples more than this import. With these competitive advantages it’s no wonder you can find pure stands of Norway maples with bare ground beneath them.

Normally I recognize Norway maples by their twigs and buds.  The buds are opposite on the stem, reddish and turban-shaped with a slightly larger end bud.  In the photo above, taken in Schenley Park in November, the twig is green with reddish turban-shaped side buds and an end bud that looks like it’s opening.  The twig below conforms more closely to the typical description of Norway maple buds.  There are many cultivars in Schenley Park including a variety with purple leaves so my photo may differ for that reason.

 

Norway maple seeds are easy to recognize because the samaras are nearly 180 degrees apart.  Other maples have “wings” that droop.  You’ll see some of these seeds and their stalks on the trees in the winter.

 

The bark on young Norway maples looks almost smooth, just faintly striped.

 

On older trees it has narrow stripes and shallow furrows.

Norway maples are easiest to recognize in late fall because they’re out of synch with our seasons.  They retain their yellow leaves into mid or late November and lose them only after our native maples are bare.

(photos by Kate St. John except UGA0008518 by Paul Wray, Iowa State Univ and UGA5306048 by Steve Hurst, USDA, both from Bugwood.org)

No responses yet

Jan 04 2012

Winter Trees: Bitternut Hickory

This one is easy.

It’s the only tree in Pennsylvania with a very long yellow end bud (and alternate small yellow buds).  It’s the bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis).

If you live in the southern U.S. the yellow buds resemble the pecan to which the bitternut is closely related.  Both are members of the Walnut family but the pecan produces tasty nuts and the bitternut produces very bitter nuts, so bitter that squirrels avoid them.  Hence its name.

In his 1985 Thornapples essay, A Nut-Gatherer’s Compendium, Charles Fergus tells of his excitement at gathering wild nuts before he knew how to identify hickories.  He collected a bucketful of nuts and hammered them open.  Fortunately he tasted one before he spent much time at this activity.  He’d collected a bucket of bitternuts.  So bitter!!

In areas where both trees grow, such as the Mississippi valley, you can distinguish between the two twigs by the bitternut’s very long end bud.  Pecan buds are small.

Don’t worry that you’ll mistake the nuts.  Bitternuts are small and round (one inch diameter) with a pointed tip.  Pecan nuts have the familiar smooth pecan color and oblong shape.

Like all hickories the bark on young bitternuts is gray-brown and smooth but it lacks the stripes found on young shagbarks that will split to become shaggy later in life.

Here’s young bitternut bark found in Schenley Park:

 

The bark on mature bitternuts is said to be thin and tight with interlacing ridges.  This description applies to several other hickories so I didn’t illustrate it.  It’s so confusing!

Don’t bend your brain trying to identify this tree by its bark.  Look at the yellow end bud.  It’s easy.

(photos by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Dec 31 2011

Green Aliens

It’s winter.  Mostly.  The plants are dormant but there’s no snow to brighten the ground.  With temperatures in the 40′s and overcast skies the landscape is brown in Pittsburgh.

But what is this?  A spot of green on this last day of 2011.  What plants are braving the cold in Schenley Park?

Two alien invasives:

Goutweed

… and Garlic mustard.

Perhaps it’s not wintry enough for them.

(photos by Kate St. John)

No responses yet

Dec 28 2011

Winter Trees: Tuliptree

The tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is easy to identify by its leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds but more of challenge when you’re limited to twigs and bark.

In early winter, look up and you’ll find the tree dotted with upright, drying fruits shaped like flowers.  Each one is a seed cluster of samaras attached at the base of the “flower.”

 

As time passes, the fruits dry and the samaras blow away from the tree or fall to the ground below.  They look like rounded skis with a lump at the toe.

 

In the absence of these clues examine the twigs, trunk and bark.

The reddish-brown twigs are less than 1/2 inch thick and have alternate leaf buds with a single large end bud shaped like a duck’s bill.  This shape is your big clue that it’s a tuliptree.  I’ve read that this bud encloses the nascent leaves until the frosts are past, then the leaves unfurl like wings.  Also notice the stipule scar that surrounds the twig where the leaf used to be.

I’ve seen both reddish-dark-gray and deep-red end buds in Schenley Park.  Dark gray is shown in the first photo, deep red below:

 

Identifying the tree by its bark is another story.  The best clue is the shape of the trunk.  It’s very straight and tall with no lower branches because these trees grow so fast.  Tuliptrees are shade intolerant and put all their energy into the trunk during their surge to the sun.  Along the way they drop their lower branches and leave a big upside down smile on the bark where the branch used to be.  This is noticeable on younger trees whose bark has flat-topped ridges with lighter furrows, shown here:

 

On older trees the ridges look less flat-topped, the furrows aren’t as light and the smiles are hard to find, though you will see horizontal line breaks in the bark:

 

When tuliptrees reach the top of the canopy, their crowns are shaped like candle flames which they resemble in late November.  At that point they retain just a few fluttering yellow leaves while the rest of the forest is brown and bare.

Perhaps this fluttering gave them the alternate name of yellow-poplar because they flutter like poplars.  But the tuliptree is not a poplar.  It’s in the magnolia family and will have beautiful flowers in the spring.

(Buds and older bark photos by Kate St. John.  Fruits, samaras and younger bark from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the Wikimedia photos to see the originals.)

One response so far

Dec 21 2011

Winter Trees: American Beech

Many of you already know the American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) by its smooth, pale gray bark.  The bark is so pale that it stands out in the forest and so smooth that people sometimes carve their initials in it.  When you see a pale, gray, smooth trunk whose bark has carvings you know you’ve found a beech.

Mature beech trees are large, often 50-70 feet tall.  Their main trunk is relatively short then the tree spreads out in slender branches. They often grow in pure stands in the forest but this can be their undoing.  When one gets beech bark disease it spreads to the entire stand.  I’ve seen this sad outcome in the Gallitzin State Forest near the John P. Saylor Trail.  Like many tree diseases, this one is caused by an imported pest.

Small beeches are eye-catching in winter because they retain their leaves.  The pale, paper thin leaves become paler as winter progresses and they rattle and dance in the wind, drawing attention to their understory host.  Here’s a twig showing the leaves still attached in early winter:

.

Step closer and you’ll see that the twig is slender with alternate buds. Each one is nearly an inch long and angled away from the twig.  In this closeup you can see the bud has many scales.  Eight or more is diagnostic according to the Winter Tree Finder.

.

If you’re lucky you’ll find beech nuts under the tree.  The husks are 4-sided, spiny and burst open to reveal one to three seeds inside. These husks had two nuts each.

 

Beech nuts are good food for wildlife so you’re unlikely to find them in late winter…  But now you can easily find a beech.

(photos by Kate St. John)

One response so far

Dec 17 2011

Milkweed in Winter

Early this month our sunny, dry weather allowed these milkweed pods to slowly release their seeds in Schenley Park.

Each brown seed emerged with a fluffy white parachute.

Last Thursday’s wind carried them away to a new home.

Tonight’s snow will cover them.

(photo by Kate St. John)

No responses yet

Dec 14 2011

Winter Trees: Sugar Maple

Sugar maple buds (photo by Kate St. John)

This week’s tree is easy to identify by its twig.

The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is a common tree in northeastern North America, prized for its wood, its brilliant fall foliage and its sap for maple syrup in the spring.

Like the white ash, the sugar maple is one of the few trees with opposite leaf buds.  If you look closely you’ll see that each pair of buds is rotated about 180 degrees from the previous set.  This keeps the tree in balance as the buds eventually become branches.

Sugar maple twigs are brown and slender and the leaf buds are brown and very pointy.  Test the tip of a bud with your finger and you’ll find it’s almost sharp!

A good hint for remembering the tree is to realize that the buds resemble upside down ice cream sugar cones.  “Sugar cones” on sugar maples.

Many trees are easy to identify by their bark but the sugar maple is not one of them.  The bark on young trees is stone-gray and smooth as shown below…

 

…but the bark on mature trees becomes furrowed with large flat scales that seem to vertically peel off the tree.  This makes for a lot of variation and can be quite confusing.  When I finally learned to identify sugar maple bark I called it “the bark that looks like nothing else.”  Not easy to explain.

If I’m stumped by the bark on a tall tree I always have one more trick up my sleeve.  I use my binoculars to examine the twigs.

Are the buds opposite, brown and pointed like sugar cones?  Sugar maple!

(photos by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Dec 07 2011

Winter Trees: Honeylocust


Just after Thanksgiving the tree cutters visited my neighborhood.  Hired by Duquesne Light, they trimmed or cut down every tree they found near the electric lines at Magee Field.

After they were gone I went to check the damage.  Did they cut down the honeylocusts whose pictures I’d taken the week before?

One look at the trunk of a honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and you know right away you don’t want to touch it.  The tree is protected by huge clusters of branching 3-inch-long thorns quite capable of impaling your hand.

The thorns are diagnostic.  No other tree in Pennsylvania has them(*).

The twigs are distinctive, too.  They’re stout, zig-zagged and tapered but there’s no need to remember that because the thorns stand out.  They’re reddish-brown, thick and branching just like the thorns on the trunk.  Hawthorn trees have thorns but nothing like this.  Theirs are long, slender and unbranched.

Here’s a picture of the twig showing the tip of my thumb while I gingerly hold it against the paper.  The longest thorn is as long as my thumb!

 

So did the tree cutters take down the honeylocusts?

No.  Of course not!

(photos by Kate St. John)

* p.s. The closely related waterlocust has similar thorns but doesn’t grow in Pennsylvania.

No responses yet

Nov 30 2011

Winter Trees: White Ash


Here’s a tree that will soon disappear from western Pennsylvania, a victim of the emerald ash borer.

White ash (Fraxinus americana) is easily identified by its twig with the chocolate-brown bud.  The twig is stout, the leaf buds are opposite each other, the leaf scar is a horseshoe shape under each leaf bud, and all the buds are chocolate brown.   (Click here for definitions of twig anatomy.)

It’s easy to find these buds in our area.  There are many white ash seedlings now because the trees have put out a lot of seed while they’re under attack.

Opposite leaf buds are a good marker for the ash because most trees have alternate leaves.  The main species with opposites are maples, ashes, buckeyes and dogwoods.  I learned to remember opposite leaves with the acronym MAB DOG (Maple, Ash, Buckeye and Dogwood).

White ash bark is distinctive too.  Its deeply ridged and the ridges join to form long diamond shapes as shown below.

.

Unfortunately, larvae of the emerald ash borer kill the tree by tunneling under the bark and damaging the phloem and xylum.  Often this causes the ridges to slowly separate from the bark.  Woodpeckers hear the larvae (amazing!) and chip away at the ridges to get at the bugs.  The result is that a dying tree has pale patches where the ridges fell off.  Infected trees try to survive by sending out sprouts near the ground.  You can see both effects on the trunk below.

.

If you examine the chipped bark closely you may find the D-shaped exit hole of the emerald ash borer.  (Thanks to Dianne Machesney for this photo.).

.

Learn the white ash now.  Sadly, it won’t be with us much longer.

(photos by Kate St. John, except for the one noted by Dianne Machesney)

2 responses so far

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ