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So, one of my most recent blogs was about carving, and what woods are good to carve with. After I posted that blog, one of our followers pointed out that I didn’t say anything about tree identification. Before you begin any kind of carving, pyrography, engraving- anything involving wood, it is vitally important that you understand the principles of tree identification. Basically, there are four factors that ID a tree; bark, leaves, flowers, and fruit. All of these combine to give you an idea of what kind of tree you’re looking at.
First, the bark. What color is the bark? Is it rough or smooth? Does it have scales or plates? Does it have furrows or ridges? Are they vertical or horizontal? Are they broken or uninterrupted? Do they intersect? Does the bark peel? This is crucial info when discussing tree ID, especially if you’re looking at a tree in the fall or winter when there are no leaves to help you.
Sometimes, bark can vary between different members of the same family of trees. Sugar maples have intersecting vertical ridges, while silver maples have deep, vertical, intersecting furrows, and the bark peels off in strips. Most evergreens have scaled, or plated bark. If it comes off in small flakes, it’s probably some type of spruce. Cedars are an exception to this rule, however. They have fine, intersecting ridges.
Next, the leaves. What color are they? What shape are they? Are they broad leaves, scales, or needle shaped? If needles, are they long and hairlike, or short and prickly? Are they in clusters? If broad, are they big or small? Pointed? Rounded? Heart-shaped? Oval? Circular? Sword-shaped? Toothed? Lobed? How many lobes do they have? Are they round lobes, or pointed? Are the leaf-veins arranged like a palm or a feather? Are the leaves simple (one leaf per stem) or compound (multiple leaves per stem)? Are the compound leaves palmate (palm shaped) or pinnate (feather shaped)? Are they alternating (zig-zag on the stem) or parallel?
Most nut trees have compound leaves; oaks being an exception. Fruit trees like apples are typically simple. All maples have pointed lobed leaves, and the veins are always in a palm shape, and nearly always have an uneven number of lobes; most have five, some three, others seven. Silver maples and red maples always have toothed edges, but sugar maples do not. Most members of the rose family have toothed leaves, and are not lobed; blackberry bushes being the exception, usually having palm-shaped, three-lobed leaves. Roses and blackberries typically have compound leaves, but apple trees, which are in the same family, always have simple leaves.
Now the flowers. We typically think of flowers as being colorful and showy, but that’s only the case about a quarter of the time. Nearly all plants (mosses and ferns being the exception) need flowers of some type in order to reproduce. Now, identifying a tree by its flowers can be a bit tricky. Some trees, like apple trees, have easily identifiable flowers. Conifers, (pines, spruces and the like) typically have small, cone-shaped flowers that release pollen into the air. Birches, willows and poplars have similar flowers known as “catkins”. Other trees, like maples, are less obvious. It’s best to look at the flower as one feature of a whole tree, looking at other features like leaves and bark before making a judgement call.
Now, flowers come in two basic types; simple and compound. Simple flowers are just a single flower on a stem; like the aforementioned apple flowers. Compound flowers actually contain multiple flowers all occupying one stem, even though they may appear to be a single flower, like daisies or sunflowers. So is the flower simple, or compound? What color is the flower? What size is the flower? Is it cone-shaped? Does it droop from the tree? Does it have petals? How many?
Similar to flowers, we typically think of “fruit” as being fleshy, sweet things like apples and plums; but really, any seed is referred to as a fruit, even pine cones. So what does the fruit look like? What color is it? How big is it? Is it fleshy, or dry and hard? Does it have multiple seeds, or a single “pit”? Is it a cone? Does it have wings? Does have a pod like a pea? Is it in a cluster?
Seeds can be very helpful in at least narrowing down to a family what kind of tree you’re looking at, even more so than flowers in many cases. Not many people know what maple flowers look like, but almost anyone can recognize the winged maple leaves. Birches have tiny seeds that fall off of spiked seed clusters. Apples are fleshy fruits with multiple seeds, plums have pits. Locust trees always have pea-like pods that split open down the middle, releasing the seeds.
Taken together, these features will help you narrow down the types of trees you may be looking at. But they shouldn’t be taken singly. Just as one wouldn’t try to identify a person by looking at pictures of their nose, you shouldn’t try to ID a tree by looking a single feature. You have to look at the whole tree. I hope this blog post has helped you become more familiar with our friends the trees. If you would like to know more about tree ID, you can visit https://www.arborday.org/trees/whattree/
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**Opinions expressed on blogs about which I write are the opinion of the blog authors and DO NOT necessarily reflect my own opinion.