Author: Rhododendron Species Foundation (Federal Way, Wash.)
Author: Massachusetts Conservation Council.
So you think you’re an ace tree identifier. Those big scalloped leaves are from oak trees, the three-fingered hand shapes are maple leaves, those little oval leaves marching in a double line along a stem are from an ash—boo yah!
OK, now do it without any leaves.
And yes, you can…with a little help from Jim Jabcon, assistant ecologist for natural areas. The other day Jabcon, walked me through the McDonald Woods and began my education.
Jim Jabcon is giving a class on Identifying Trees and Shrubs in Winter on December 10. Sign up today!
First, he corrected my misinformation. I always thought the trick was looking at the tree’s habit—its size and shape. But no—especially not in a natural woodland like this. A tree’s habit depends on where it is growing—how crowded it is by other trees and what it has to do to catch some sunlight.
“Any tree will change its habit depending on what is given to it,” he said as we walked into the woods. “You can probably get 100 trees in a row, but it’s like a fingerprint. They all have different spaces, different light; they’re all going to be different.”
Still, there are some distinctive shapes. Does the tree have thick branches, even at its top with a fearsome, gnarly look worthy of a horror movie? Jabcon nodded at a towering behemoth that could have played a role in The Exorcist: it was an oak.
But let’s start with a major clue: bark.
Jabcon cast a practiced eye—an artist’s eye, in fact, for his degree is in fine art—over the trees. He pointed out a tall tree whose trunk was covered in thick, rough bark.
That bark is the giveaway. The tree was an oak; the tough bark is its secret to surviving fires.
Nearby, another tree boasted thick bark with a rugged geometry, forming blocky rectangles running vertically up the tree in a kind of forest version of cubism.
“This is your black walnut,” Jabcon said. “It’s got a really good knobby bark.”
It also had another tree, a small sapling, growing in a crook about 5 feet up. Jabcon pulled it out and showed how its slender reddish branches were covered with a white chalky material that scraped off easily. “This is your box elder, in the maple family,” he said.
And further along the trail was a tree that won my heart because it looked like another part of a human body.
Its smooth, gray trunk was wrapped in bark with the sinewy look of muscle.
That was because the tree was a muscle wood—the common name for an American hornbeam, bestowed because of the signature appearance of its bark.
Walking on, we stopped at another tree with its own distinctive bark, which looks like big hunks of bark pasted onto the trunk and separated by deep grooves. That “warty” bark, as Jabcon put it, identified it as hackberry. (Celtis occidentalis)
Blogger Kathy J. gives you a Tree 101 on hackberry in her post This Bark is Rough.
Still, bark isn’t the only clue. Jabcon pulled a slender branch close and examined the leaf buds running along its length.
They were in neat pairs, each bud opposite another. “Very few trees have opposite leaf buds,” he said. “Ashes. Maples. So if you’ve got opposite buds you can narrow it down.”
To make the final ID, he examined the terminal bud—the bud at the very end of the branch. It consisted of a cluster of three tiny points, making the branch look almost like a miniature deer hoof. That distinctive shape settled it: this was a white ash.
And so it went as we wandered through the woodland.
We looked at leaf buds, like the sulphur yellow leaf ones (“I love how cool they are,” Jabcon said) on a bitter nut, one of his favorite trees.
We looked at terminal buds, like the super-long ones that look like a goose’s bill and mark it as a nannyberry, a kind of viburnum.
We looked at bark, like the one hanging in huge strips off a tree. It was a shagbark hickory. This tree’s bark has peeled off in such big pieces that bats have hibernated beneath them.
And if all else fails, there is another clue still there in winter, though soon it could be hidden under snow.
“It’s OK to cheat and look at leaves on the ground,” Jabcon said cheerfully, picking up a few oak leaves to prove the point. “They’re still there.”
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
Some of the star attractions of Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden are the dozens of beautiful dwarf conifers used to create Chicago in miniature. What you might not know is that many of these conifers are great plants for the Chicago area and can easily be incorporated into your home landscape.
Dwarf conifers are a good way to add four-season interest and wildlife habitat to your yard, and with their unique colors and growth habits, they are practically living sculptures. I’ve selected four of my favorite interesting and unique conifers (found in Wonderland Express—go check them out) that are hardy in the Chicago region.
Engleman spruce (Picea engelmannii ‘Bush’s Lace’) is a tall, powder blue spruce that is grown for its upright habit and pendulous side branches. Unlike some evergreens, this spruce will keep the gorgeous blue color throughout the year. This tree thrives in the extremes of Chicago’s summers and frigid winters. It is a vigorous plant and will often put on two feet of growth in one season, so make sure to plant it somewhere where it has some room. Engleman spruce are happiest in full sun with well-drained soil. A mature specimen of this tree can be found in the Dwarf Conifer Garden.
De Ruyter Serbian spruce (Picea omorika ‘de Ruyter’) is another spruce that will thrive in the Chicago region. Serbian spruce typically feature dark green needles with silver undersides that shimmer in the breeze, but on this variety, the silver is on top, making for a pop of silvery blue on each branch. This is a slower-growing cultivar, often growing only six to eight inches a year in a loosely conical shape. Because it is a spruce, it requires full sun and well-drained soil to look its best. There is also a large specimen of De Ruyter in the Dwarf Conifer Garden.
Tannenbaum mugo pine (Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’) is a twist on a classic mugo pine. Most people are familiar with mugo pines as the little round pines that often resemble boulders in the landscape. Tannenbaum, as the name suggests, is an upright form that grows as a perfect green pyramid, with the classic Christmas tree shape. It is a relatively slow-growing plant—approximately six inches per year—and holds its dark green color all year. Mugo pines are amazingly hardy and should do well throughout the Chicago area, provided they receive full sun and have relatively well-drained soil.
Glauca Prostrata noble fir (Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’) grows as a creeping mat of icy blue foliage. Weeping blue noble fir makes an unusual addition to the landscape due to its rounded needles, unlike the similar weeping Colorado blue spruce, which has incredibly sharp needles. This makes it a far better choice for placing near walkways. This slow-growing plant averages four to six inches of growth a year, eventually forming a clump about two feet tall and about six feet wide. As with other conifers, this noble fir prefers full sun and well-drained soil.
Top tips for keeping your conifers happy:
- Most conifers prefer full sun and have very little shade tolerance. All of the trees in this article prefer full sun.
- Conifers are generally adapted to areas with well-drained soil. Avoid places that stay wet to prolong the life of your plant.
- Avoid windy locations. Because conifers keep their needles all year, it is best to site them in less exposed places so they don’t dry out and lose their needles.
- Water thoroughly in the fall. You only have once chance to make sure the plant has enough water before the ground freezes and you can’t water it anymore. If we have a dry fall, it is helpful to water your newly planted trees until the ground freezes so they have enough water to last the winter.
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
Perennial plants [electronic resource] : the quarterly newsletter of the Perennial Plant Association.
Wonder plants : your urban jungle interior / Irene Schampaert & Judith Baehner ; translation, Joy Philips.
Author: Schampaert, Irene, author.
Call Number: SB419.25.S33 2016
Call Number: SB469.375.W664 2015
Author: Zamora, Francesc.
Call Number: SD434.Z36 2016
Author: Tychonievich, Joseph, author.
Call Number: SB459.T93 2016
Author: Marren, Peter, author.
Call Number: QL544.M37 2016
Author: Hirsch, Rebecca E., author.
Call Number: QK49.H57 2016
Author: Hansen, Eric (Eric K.), author.
Call Number: SB61.H36 2000
Author: Manley, Reeser, author.
Call Number: SB454.3.E53M36 2016
Author: Parker, Edward, photographer, author.
Call Number: SD383.3.G7P37 2016
Roberto Burle Marx : landscapes reflected / Rossana Vaccarino, editor ; with essays by William Howard Adams [and others].
Call Number: SB470.B87R63 2000