Tree Identity

Garden Clippings for December 1, 2018

“D’ya mean you didn’t know what that was?”  Ben tired to act disappointed, but he smirked because he figured he finally stumped his dad.

“Of course, it’s a Sycamore, look how light the bark is.”

So went the conversation a week or so ago as we drove the rural routes towards Grand Bend.  I thought I was pretty good at identifying trees just by looking at their form, shape, and branching structure, but I am finally meeting my match.

Identifying trees in winter is only slightly more difficult than when they are fully clothed with leaves.  I honed my skills 40 odd years ago at Michigan State University, when our class of 23 traipsed the campus in January’s cold, led by Jerry, a grad assistant.  We would inspect everything on the tree, from bark to bud, and then arrive at a guess which was often but not always correct.

Oaks are easy to identify, particularly when they are isolated, and their growth pattern is not interrupted by adjacent trees.  Red Oaks are stately, broad, rounded, with width almost equal to height.  Their stems are almost black.  Red Oak’s bark is clean, dark and tightly fissured, almost as if rivers run up and down the main stem.

White Oaks are equally stately and broad but greyer in colour.  Bark is mottled or scaly and quite rough textured.  White Oaks might be slightly taller than Red Oaks.

Maples are quite easy to identify and distinguish from each other within their own family.  Silver Maples are taller than wide, have a haphazard shape with side branches coming from main branches at all angles.  Norway Maples are dense, broad with a rounded head.  Limbs are darker.  Sugar Maples are taller, with greyish bark.

Manitoba Maples have dark stems that are often low to the ground.  Manitoba Maples are rarely straight, and their side branches lack any shape or system.

Sycamores are huge, up to 100 feet tall with massive, stalky, irregularly shaped branches.  The main trunk is grey and rough, while the inner stems are light green or beige.  Sycamore’s peeling bark is a dead giveaway.

American Elm is also tall, with a tall trunk that finally spreads its branches in a V pattern.

Shademaster Locust is broader than tall.  It is interesting that a 40 foot Oak might have a trunk diameter of 30 inches, while a 40 foot Locust will have a trunk diameter of less than 20 inches.

Linden has soft, pliable limbs that seldom break.  Buds and limbs are very smooth.  The old original Linden, called American Basswood has a main central leader with random side branches.  New varieties of Linden have a branching head that is very triangular, almost teepee shaped.

Poplars are very tall, and very course textured.  Trunks gray are also highly fissured, resembling deep valleys and high mountains.  Buds are large, pointed and sticky.

Weeping Willows are easiest to identify with their long thin yellowish limbs that hang downward.

Walnut limbs are distinctively black.  Their crown is irregular, usually growing taller than wide.

Beech trees are very grey with a trunk that resembles an elephant leg.  In winter, Beech leaf buds are narrow, pointed and sticky.  Old Beech tree foliage often turns tan coloured and can remain on the tree until the new buds in spring push off the old leaves.

Next week’s Garden Clippings will examine conifer varieties.