Naming the Trees in Winter

This year, I made a commitment to learn about the trees in my neighborhood, as I participate with the students in my current online class, A Year in Flowers. This was the next logical step in my quest to find nature in the city.

I had already spent several years learning about the plants in my neighborhood. My plant blindness was fading. After taking classes and going on field trips with the Washington Native Plant Society, and with Seattle’ resident plant expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson, I recognized most of the plants in the few blocks around my apartment building. Here a hedge of sarcococca humilis, var. Hookeriana, already emitting its sweet perfume in January. On the corner, a witch hazel, all yellow curlicues. At the entrance to the alley, a stand of wild violets, re-emerging with their heart-shaped leaves from the mud.

But when it came to trees, I was at a total loss. I could lump the evergreens into major categories: pines, firs, cedars. I still had a lot to learn about species. But the deciduous trees were the bigger problem. In January, they were just so many trunks, so many branches. Without their leaves or fruit, I was stumped.

I began by trying to recognize the same trees when they appeared in different settings on my daily walks with my dog. It helped to give them names based on their appearance. The lumpy bumpy tree. The freckled grey bark tree. The cavorting branch tree.

My usual tools at this stage of my research: the field guides were not useful. I paged through three of them looking for the tree I called the grey freckled bark tree. I had put days into the search when it occurred to me that maybe the freckles were not part of the bark but lichen.

Now there are easy ways to identify a tree, especially in Seattle. The City of Seattle, through the Department of Transportation, has compiled a Street Tree Inventory which you can view as a clickable map.

Or you can start from the other direction: If you think you know the tree genus, you can look it up in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s excellent book, Trees of Seattle. After some remarks that help you identify the trees, Jacobson supplies some locations where those trees are located.

There are problems with both of these approaches. One is that the streets on the street inventory are self-reported so they may be incorrect identifications. And I have the older edition of Jacobson’s book. Many of the trees he mentions have since disappeared, especially the ones near my apartment on Capitol Hill, cut down because of new construction.

But I also spurned these as initial approaches because it feels a bit like cheating to me. I like to make myself work a little harder. I find it is the effort I put into the identifying process that helps me remember what I’ve learned. It’s like the difference between making small talk and getting to really know someone over a series of coffees and meals and conversations.

So I spend a lot of time studying the bark and branching patterns of the deciduous trees around me. Some trees are easy: the liquidambar in front of the apartment building are still bearing their knobby fruit capsules (sometimes called space balls). The hawthorn down the street finally shed its leaves during the last windstorm but is still sporting dark red haws. And who can forget the Empress tree? Even though there won’t be any lilac-colored, vanilla-scented flowers until May and strange pods until July, it is unforgettable once identified.

While walking a little farther afield with my dog, Flora one day, I happened upon a tree with the same grey bark and white freckles as the tree I was trying to identify. But this one still had leaves on it, all of them dried and crunchy. I took off a leaf and went home and used a field guide which was designed like a key. Gradually I made my way to the beeches and decided my grey freckle bark tree was a beech.

I mentioned this to my friend Dan and he said, “Oh a copper beech. They don’t shed their leaves until spring. The new buds push out the old leaves.” He knew because he had one in his yard. And indeed, when I looked up copper beeches I learned all about abcission (the process by which trees shed their leaves) and marcescence (some trees hold onto their leaves through the winter, notably oaks, beeches and hornbeams). The leaves won’t fall off until wind snaps the brittle petioles. One theory about why this is advantageous for a tree is that it discourages herbivores from nibbling on the emerging twigs. A mouthful of brittle, dried leaves is not appealing.

Looking up the name beech, I discover that its species name (Fagus) derives from a Latin word for edible that comes from the same root as beech. The name beech is also cognate with book. This may be due to the lovers’ practice of scratching entwined initials within a heart on the bark. Because the tree retains the same bark for its entire life, rather than shedding it like madrone or birch, or growing new protective layers like most trees, the writing remains for the tree’s lifetime. The beech is a book, recording forever the moment in time when RF and FH decided to memorialize their love.

And when I looked up beeches in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s Trees of Seattle book, I found there was another one a block away. On my next walk, I found that tree. It had the same smooth grey bark with white freckles on it. Lichen, I learn. Lichens love beeches because they don’t shed their bark.

Alas, when I turn to the Street tree inventory, it identifies my grey freckle bark tree as a Midland English Hawthorn. That’s clearly wrong. I know where the hawthorn tree is. Just a block away. So at this point, I’m going to let hold my identification lightly in my mind and heart and wait for the tree to reveal itself to me when the leaves emerge.

How do you identify strange trees in the winter? If you’d like a challenge and some companionship along the way, you can sign up for the Year in Flowers class. It’s $20 for a month, $120 a whole year of lessons.

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