Posted on February 1, 2017 by Jim MacDougall

Nature in February - Trees


Winter is the time to don your Druidic hoody (anorak) and strap on the old hickories (skis), hit the trail and study trees.
Trees are magnificent giants that make our air, sequester carbon dioxide and warm our homes; they deserve the reverence offered to them by the ancient Celts. Today, we take trees for granted. And yet they supply all the services that make Essex County worth living in: beauty, air, shade, food and fuel. Best of all, they stand still for us to identify. And since Greenbelt's land preservation success is 60% forest, why not appreciate this by seeing the trees through the forest at Indian Hill Farm Reservation / West Newbury, Pingree Woodland / Hamilton,  Elizabeth How Reservation / Ipswich or Beverly Commons Conservation Area / Beverly?

 sibley tree guideThe Sibley Guide to Trees is a good primer.  Sit down the night before a hike and thumb through the pages picking out trees you want to find.  The book is comfortable.  Not too much information to numb the brain.  But enough to help you notice what to notice in a tree. It's pretty.  The illustrations of the tree, leaves and flowers are far more instructional than a photo and the range maps are accurate so that you can predict which species of a group is in the area or not. This book is your armchair tree companion.

When you hike, carry Peterson’s Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs by George Petrides.  I have carried this book since junior high school and it is my go-to book for all things woody in the woods. If a rank junior high student like me can have success identifying trees and shrubs, most certainly you will have success too. Good books increase the success of discovery and it's the prospect of discovery that motivates us to get outside.

oaks in winterIn Essex County forests, you will find oaks. Why? Because we are part of North America's austral forest type, or the Oak/Hickory forest. On the northern slopes of hills in the county you may find relics of Northern Hardwood Forest,s with Sugar Maples, Paper and Yellow Birches, and Hemlocks. These big categories of forest types are climate controlled.  Compare these to trees like pine, poplar, gray birch and junipers, which are pioneers colonizing fields created by fire, herds or people. And last there are upland trees and wetland trees.  Red Maple, Silver Maple, Green Ash, White Cedar and Willows can tolerate wet roots. Black Oak, Scarlet Oak, Shagbark Hickory and White Ash live in well drained soil.

Alder twigOnce you understand the formula of twig bud alignment, bud shape and leaf scar configuration, you will be expert in tree ID without ever looking at a leaf. Visit any Greenbelt woodland and walk up to a tree.  In a forest, the trees are confined by their neighbor and they do not take on the classic silhouette that is represented by field guides. But all the other features remain true: bark pattern, branching (opposite or alternate), bud character (pointy or blunt, sticky, fuzzy, shiny, end buds that are true or false, a  tricky thing, and leaf scars with three dots, five dots, many dots, etc.

treesOnce you learn the major groups of trees you can map out where you can harvest nuts in summer or collect your firewood for winter.  The hickories are great for both.  Hard maple (Sugar) is better for the fireplace than soft maple (Red). Elm is hard to split for firewood but its stringiness was sought after to make hubs for wagon wheels. American Elms make the best buttresses for Baltimore Oriole nests.

Reading Resources: 
The Sibley Guide to Trees, by David Allen Sibley
Field Guide to the Eastern Forests by John C. Kricher, Gordon Morrison
The Nature of Massachusetts  by Christopher W. Leahy
Trees 1949 Yearbook of Agriculture
Understanding Wood, Dr. R. Bruce Hoadley

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