Discourse / Editorials / November 17, 2010

Telling Trees in Winter: An inadequate guide

Anthrax. Pneumonia. Shotgun-wielding lunatics. Nuclear war. Falling pianos. Death awaits us all around some sunny corner, cackling and wringing his sweaty little hands. Thus it is imperative that we enjoy the dreariness of winter, because we may not make it to spring. For me, this means knowing how to identify trees by indicators other than their leaves, which, as everybody knows, pack up for SoCal the instant cold weather hits. What follows is a guide to the identification of native Midwestern trees during the winter months. I am leaving conifers out of the picture, with two exceptions, since their whole schtick is that they stay plump and green year-round. My method is a lazy one: I will point out local examples to avoid having to describe them in too much detail. Hey, 400 words ain’t much.

The conifer exceptions are the eastern larch, aka tamarack or hackmatack, and the swamp or bald cypress. Larches are easy to identify in winter because they are extremely creepy, having a spindly skeletal frame with wispy branches clustering up a central spire. On the northwestern corner of Standish Park, there are two fine specimens that, as of this writing, still sport their yellow autumn needles. The bald cypress is more prevalent around campus, and its feathery needles are currently a deep reddish brown. You can see one of the world’s prettiest bald cypresses in between TKE and Beta. Their bark is thin, peeling and gray-brown and looks vaguely like the tree is wrapped up mummy-like in Christmas ribbon.

Broadleaved trees might seem difficult to identify without their leaves, but bark is just as good a clue as a leaf. Many trees have distinctive bark. Sycamores are my favorite, with mottled green, brown and white jigsaw pieces eventually falling away to reveal smooth, bone-white bark on the spastic outer branches. There are two large sycamores on the north side of Four-Name. Lindens, ashes, elms, walnuts, sweetgums, tuliptrees, cottonwoods and the various oaks all tend to have bark with the same tangled-rope look. Colors and patterns help to differentiate them; for example, ash bark tends to form crisp diamond patterns. You can find an excellent, fat ash tree outside the C-Store, towards the street.

Well, shoot, it looks like I’m out of space. Stay tuned next term, you crazy kids, for more tree-ID tips and other observations. ‘Til then, wear your woolens and pack your Peterson guide. Merry Christmas! Get a fake tree!

Sam Bouman

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