Identifying Trees Without Leaves

This week’s blog was written by John B., a Brookies alumni. John is a senior in high school. He found out about the academy from his Chinese teacher who thought that he would enjoy it. John figured he would enjoy the camp because he enjoyed a conservation camp that he attended previously. John loves spending time outdoors and often goes fishing. His plan is to attend college next fall to pursue biology and possibly Chinese too.

Early on in the month of November, I attended a plant identification hike at Nodle State Park. I was delighted when I saw it on their Facebook page, for I plan on pursuing Botany as my major in college. Although it was cold and many tree leaves had fallen to the ground, we took this as an opportunity to learn more. I had always thought that the spring would be best for looking at wild plants, but late Fall proved very conducive to honing my identification skills.

This Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma tsugae) proves the decayed tree to be a Eastern Hemlock

The vast majority of my hiking time is in the Spring and Summer when the green growth in the forest is quite luscious. Using a tree identification book, I’ve gotten pretty good at using leaves to tell me the type of tree. With all the leaves fallen to the ground and beginning to decay, we had to turn to other methods. One interesting method I use is the fungi growing on or around the tree. I originally wanted to be able to identify trees to help me identify fungi but have found it to work in the reverse order too. In some cases, a confident ID of a mushroom growing on a decayed tree can tell you the species of the tree! Two examples of this are the Birch Polypore mushroom and the Reishi mushroom by only growing on Birch and Hemlock trees respectively. No mushrooms in sight meant I had to learn new identification methods. The bark and buds were our new clues to solving the species mystery. A Beech Tree may have a very unique pale, smooth bark, but how do you identify it when it is young and without this defining characteristic? I learned that you can look for the Beech Tree’s long thin pointed buds. How about distinguishing the similar leafed Red Oak and Black Oak? The key is to look for the long vertical striped bark on the Red Oak. Some trees even have a certain smell! The black and yellow Birch Trees will both smell like wintergreen if you scratch off the bark of a young twig. Additionally, the scars left by leaves, seeds, and the overall tree shape can all be used to help in identification.

Many Birch Polypore Mushrooms help identify the dead tree as a Birch Tree

Overall, the more defining characteristics you know of a certain tree, the more easily it will be to identify. I really enjoy trying to identify any wildlife I come across, but for some reason, the woody plants have always been the hardest. I challenge anyone reading this to just go out into their yard and try to identify the trees: that is how I started! If you don’t have any trees, go to the local park! Identifying wildlife has really helped me appreciate all the diversity and minute characteristics that distinguish different species.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.