Tree Identification: An Online Guide

Following is a list, arranged alphabetically for convenient reference, giving certain identification marks of various trees that may be noted in winter, but it will, I hope, prove equally useful at all seasons; particularly at planting-time when you'll want to remember on what kind of soil or land forms -- as hillsides or lowlands -- different trees grow best.

Notice that the trees, like certain other faithful friends whose joyful companionship contributes so much to the pleasure of a day in the woods, have their characteristic barks. In the case of the trees these barks differ not only in color but in texture and surface finish, as illustrated by the deeply wrinkled coat of the Sassafras, the smooth Birch and Locust, the loose and friable White Oak and Elm. And trees even have their characteristic ways of taking off these coats -- or "getting rid of their barks," as we might say, to keep up our little joke on Friend Dog; stripping them off lengthwise, as in the Shellbark Hickory, the Bald Cypress, and the Red Cedar; peeling them off sidewise, as do the Birches; or, thirdly -- for three definite classifications are made in this respect -- taking them off "any old way," as the Sycamore does.

Ash: Tapering trunk, broad crown. Prefers rich, moist soil. Thrives in swamps. White Ash seventy to one hundred feet high. Diamond-shaped furrows in gray or grayish-brown bark.

Aspen. (See Poplar.)

Beech: Widely distributed on uplands and mountain slopes, bottom-lands and stream borders. Height, seventy to eighty feet. In the forest grows tall and slender with narrow head; in the open, shorter and stockier with round-topped head of slender, slightly drooping branches. Has many short, lateral branchelets. Bark, smooth and ashy gray.

Birch: "The Lady of the Woods" is also a "Lady of the Lake," for, besides rich moist hillsides, she frequents the banks of lakes, swamps, and streams. The bark has horizontal holes, called lenticels, which help the leaves help the tree to get its breath, by admitting air. All trees have these breathing-holes, but they are especially prominent in Birches, Cherry Trees, and some others. The differing colors of the bark help give their names to the different species of the Birch family - Black, White, Red, Yellow.

Box-Elder. (See Maple.)

Buckeye. (Treated along with its half-brother, the Horse-Chestnut, under Chestnut.)

Butternut. (See White Walnut, under Walnut.)

Buttonwood. (See Sycamore.)

Cherry: Of course all boys and birds know the Wild Black Cherry, although its berries, to the spoiled taste of after-years, seem such puckery affairs, but every one can enjoy the beauty of the tree itself, with its gracefully curved limbs and noble crown. Usually forty to fifty feet high, on the slope of the southern Alleghanies it reaches a height of one hundred. Prefers rich, moist soil, but will grow in light, sandy lands, and, like the Pines, endures the salt winds of the sea as very few trees can. Only on the younger branches is the bark reddish brown and shiny, like that of the tame Cherry.

Chestnut: We're not going to forget, very soon, the tree that has just opened its generous, rough-gloved hands with the first frost, and distributed its gifts, right and left, like a special, early edition Santa Claus, are we? But if somebody doesn't soon discover a way of dealing with the deadly bark disease that is killing our Chestnut Trees by the thousands, this good friend will survive only in pictures and print. What a magnificent specimen of treehood he is, with his straight trunk, gray, deep-furrowed, and broad-ridged, rising sixty to one hundred feet in the air, his wide-spreading branches and general mien of a patriarch, the father of his people!

Now, about a Chestnut that isn't a Chestnut! I mean the Horse-Chestnut. The Horse-Chestnut belongs to the same family as the Buckeye, while the old friend of our boyhood, whose perilous state we have just been talking about, is more closely related to the Oaks and the Beeches. Erect trunk, cone-like head. May be one hundred feet high. Branches curve upward, then down, then up again at tips. Buckeye, in size and anatomy, practically identical, but Ohio and California Buckeyes much smaller.

Cottonwood. (See Poplar.)

Cucumber Tree or Mountain-Magnolia: On moist, fertile soil from western New York to southern Illinois, south through central Kentucky to Alabama and Arkansas. In the forest rises to ninety feet. In the open takes the form of a cone with low-sweeping branches. Bark, brown.

Elm: With its graceful arches and vase-like outline is almost as well known as the picture of George Washington. Rises to a considerable height without branches; then divides into two or three, sometimes as many as five, branches, which gradually bend away from each other until they reach a height of sixty to one hundred feet and then spread into feathery plumes. Abundant in moist woods, especially in rich soil. Bark, ashy gray.

The English Elm, which first came to this country in Colonial times, is like John Bull, stout and stocky and hasn't the drooping habit of its American cousin; in fact, looks something like an Oak. Bark, ashy gray to dark brown.

The Slippery or Red Elm -- it gets both names from its bark -- sixty to seventy feet high, with broad, open, flat-topped head, is very common along streams and on fertile hillsides. Bark, grayish to reddish brown.

Cork-Elm, so called from the corky ridges covering twigs and smaller branches; Rock and Hickory Elm, from the hardness of its wood; and Cliff-Elm because it frequents the cliffs as well as dry, gravelly uplands, rocky slopes, and soils of heavy clay.

Hackberry: Belongs to the Elm family and might easily be mistaken for an Elm in winter, although it seldom reaches the average size of the Elms. An interesting identification mark for winter is its tendency to grow twigs in dense clusters known as "witch brooms," due to infection of the bud, a peculiarity shared by the Birches. These "witch brooms" don't do the trees any harm and the birds will be much obliged if you'll leave them alone. On a Birch in the famous Kew Gardens in the suburbs of London is a "broom" two yards wide, containing seven nests of blackbirds and thrushes. Hackberries prefer rich, moist soil, but will grow on gravelly hills. Bark, light brown or silvery gray.

Hickory: You know the tree from which you got the delicious nuts, the big Shellbark -- one hundred feet high, maybe -- with its trunk as straight as an arrow, but do you know the others, the Swamp, Mockernut, and Pignut, for instance? Swamp prefers the banks of streams and swamps but is found in crowds on poor, dry, gravelly soil in parts of Alabama and Mississippi. Is as tall and handsome as the Shellbark and its bark is as rough but doesn't scale off, and its nuts -- well, try one and you'll see why it is also known as the Bitternut. So with the Mockernut and the Pignut Hickories, but all three, as well as the Shellbark, are fine trees from a lumber standpoint. Mockernut bark is light to dark gray, roughened by irregular furrows; Pignut, dark to brownish gray, resembling that of the White Ash but without the diamond pattern. Mockernut prefers rich uplands, but will grow in sandy soil. Maximum height, one hundred feet. Pignut prefers dry ridges and hillsides; height, fifty to sixty feet. The bark of none of these Hickories shells off as does the Shellbark.

The Pecan is a Hickory, and I don't need to say a word about how good its nuts are. A native of the fertile lowlands of the lower Mississippi Valley, where it sometimes reaches a height of over 150 feet and a diameter of 6. Has been extensively planted as far north as Iowa and Indiana for the nuts which it produces abundantly, but is of little value for lumber. Grows best on rich, moist soil, and is recommended for the farmer's wood-lot, particularly along streams where we won't be growing anything else (if we're farmers), and for wet places. The bark is light brown, tinged with red.

Hornbeam: Grows along streams and swamps, if it's the species known as the Blue Beech (on account of its bluish-gray bark), and varies from a shrub to a small tree. The Hop-Hornbeam is a slender little citizen that only grows about fifty feet high, on dry, gravelly slopes and ridges, often in the shade of Oaks, Maples, and other large trees, but oh, how tough! You can tell it in winter by its interlacing twigs, like little wires, sticking out almost at right angles from the slender branches; also by certain little round things hanging at the ends of the twigs, like baby sausages, all ready for the camp-fire! They are there all ready for warming up, but they're not sausages. Have a guess and then look in the "Wood Scout" notes at the end of the May chapter and see if you are right. The bark, unlike that of its blue-coated brother, peels off in little scales.

Horse-Chestnut. (See Chestnut, although it isn't a Chestnut!)

Linden: Pillar-like trunk reaches a height of 70 to 130 feet, with branches that keep dividing and subdividing into spray-like twigs, often drooping a little at the ends, forming a broad, rounded head. Bark, light brown, furrowed, and scaly. A native of rich woods. If you don't identify and Lindens this winter, the bees will point them out in the spring.

Maple: No other tree is so common nor so widely popular as the Maple. Some of the most interesting varieties are: Sugar Maple, Silver Maple, Red Maple, and Striped Maple.

Sugar Maple grows best on well-drained, rich soil; sometimes over one hundred feet high and four feet in diameter. Bark, grayish brown. When in the open its crown is almost a pure oval. In the forest it frequently rises seventy feet without a branch. In old age its limbs are often gnarled.

Silver Maple, one of the largest and most common of river trees throughout the Mississippi Valley, rare along the Atlantic coast. Reaches ninety to one hundred feet. Trunk soon divides into three or four limbs, forming a wide-spreading head with drooping branches. Bark, greenish to reddish brown on twigs, dark gray on trunk.

Red Maple loves the borders of streams and swamps; eighty to one hundred feet in height, with upright branches forming a narrow head. Bark, dark gray on trunk, reddish, with white dots, on twigs.

Striped Maple ranges in size from a scrub to thirty or forty feet. Short trunk, slender, upright branches. Bark, reddish brown and streaked with long white lines. Branchlets, pale greenish yellow, later reddish brown, and striped like the trunk. It is also often found stripped; that is, without any bark at all! Mr. Moose has a sweet tooth, and the bark and branchlets are his favorite winter food; hence another name for this slender, delicate little beauty of the dense forests is Moosewood. It likes moist soil, mountains, and shade.

Ash-Leaved Maple. This tree is so widely known as the Box-Elder and its leaves are so unmaple-like that many people don't know it's as Maple at all! Yet its pretty keys at once unlock the secret; and, what's more, maturing late in the summer, they often hang all winter! Attains fifty to seventy feet along stream banks and swamps. Trunk often divides near ground into a number of stout, wide-spreading branches. Bark, smooth and purplish green on twigs, grayish brown and furrowed on trunk.

Norway Maple. A handsome foreigner widely planted as a street tree. Of sturdy build, sixty feet high when full grown, and with a broad, round head. Trunk bark, black and fissured; branchlets at first green, later reddish brown and shiny.

Sycamore Maple. Many consider this the most beautiful of European Maples. In its native land it thinks nothing of 100 feet, and sometimes climbs to 120, but, so far, its has proven neither large nor long-lived in this country. Brown, scaly bark.

Mountain Magnolia: In the forest rises to ninety feet, with sturdy, branchless trunk for two-thirds of its height. In the open becomes a cone with branches that sweep the ground. It loves the mountainside, where the soil is moist and fertile, the banks of streams, and the sides of narrow valleys.

Pecan. (See Hickory.)

Poplars: Aspens, Cottonwoods, and Poplars are all Poplars -- have the same Latin surname, "Populus." They're great people for standing out where they can look around and see what's going on in the world; so, although they're trees themselves, they don't like forests and don't gather in crowds much, even among themselves. They're to be found chiefly on forest borders and in open fields; in both cases near water, if there's any handy, thank you! They usually have a lot of youngsters around their feet -- sprouts from the roots. As a rule the bark is ashy gray to white. It furrows deeply with age, but on young trees, particularly the Aspens, it is almost smooth. In winter the ground is apt to be well covered with their broken branches, for their brittle wood simply can't stand the strain of high winds and the weight of snow and ice. There are twenty-seven kinds of Aspens, Poplars, and Cottonwoods in the world. Of these the most widely distributed in this country are the Trembling and Large-Toothed Aspens, the Balsam, the White, Black, and Lombardy Poplars, and the Cottonwood.

All artists and all lovers of beautiful landscapes and their pictures know how the branches of the Lombardy Poplar hug the trunk, "like wool upon the distaff," as St. Pierre said of the Cypress; a feature which sharply distinguishes it from all the other members of its family.

Sassafras: May be almost a shrub or may grow to thirty, fifty, sometimes one hundred, feet. Seems to be about as undecided about its size as it is about the shape of its leaves, doesn't it? When a large tree it has a stout trunk and a flat crown. The bark? Taste it! If you've never had the pleasure of taking Sassafras tea for what ailed you, this will make it up to you!

Sour-Gum: Rises fifty to one hundred feet along swamps and streams and in wet lowlands. Very straight, with long, slightly drooping branches. Long, narrow, cone-like head. Likes company and rarely flourishes in exposed positions. Bark, light, reddish brown, deeply furrowed, and scaly.

Sweet-Gum: If you don't happen to remember the tree with the star-shaped leaf -- the one that looked as if it belonged to some kind of a Maple -- look now, in the leafless season, for a tree with cork wings on its twigs, and it may be the tree you want -- the Sweet-Gum. And maybe not! For the twigs of the Burr-Oak, the Cork-Elm, and some others also have cork wings. But if, besides, it has seed-balls on long stems that, at a distance, suggest the Sycamore, it's a Sweet-Gum, sure enough! And, like those of the Sycamore, these seed-balls hang all winter.

Sounds like one of those puzzle things where "my first is in this but not in that, my second is in that but not in t'other," doesn't it? But it's that way with lots of trees; and that's the fun of it!

Sycamore: Along streams and bottom-lands, seventy to one hundred feet high. Often divides near the ground into several secondary trunks free from branches; spreading limbs near the top make an irregular, open head. As it grows, the bark falls off in plates, leaving a surface that will remind you, if you're in a poetic mood, of the mottled water of a sea-beach after the breaking of a wave. (And you won't forget the little, round seed-balls that give the Sycamore one of its other names, "Buttonwood.")

Tulip Tree: This is the tree with that curious, cropped-off leaf, but the tree itself is most noble in bearing and stature; thinks nothing of 70 to 100 feet, and has been known to grow to 190, with a trunk 10 feet in diameter. Prefers deep, rich, and rather moist soil. It isn't what you'd call a solitary tree, and yet the Tulips don't gather around in crowds. Bark, brown and furrowed.

Walnut: It's rather a waste of space to tell a boy what a Walnut Tree looks like. The Black Walnut, besides giving us those delicious and not-too-easy-to-get-at kernels for the winter fireside, is one of the most imposing of the forest nobility; indeed, a very prince among all trees that are "good for food or pleasant to the eye." It reaches a height of one hundred feet, with a trunk four to six feet across, in the rich bottom-lands and on the fertile hillsides where it loves to dwell. In its broad-spreading crown and the bold way in which its limbs strike out, it suggests old King Oak.

The White Walnut, better known as the Butternut, inhabits the same kind of soil and grows fifty to seventy feet high, with broad-spreading, horizontal branches, forming a low, symmetrical head. The bark is of a lighter gray than that of the Black Walnut and the ridges are much broader.

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