Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries
Research and Development Associate
Why on earth does our calendar year end and begin in the middle of winter? It simply doesn’t make sense considering everything else in God’s creation follows a year based on the changing seasons. Shouldn’t our year begin with the first day of spring? I guess it doesn’t matter to the rest of earth’s inhabitants that humans and computers follow a different time schedule because they don’t know and don’t care what we think. When the big ball drops in Times Square, deciduous trees don’t begin growing new leaves, farmers haven’t begun planting corn, and virtually nothing in our hemisphere is in bloom.
Maybe I’m over thinking this phenomenon? Perhaps the calendar New Year gives us time to prepare for Mother Nature’s new year, much like we set our clocks fast in an effort to get to work on time. From a land manager’s standpoint, this alarm of sorts can serve as a wake-up-call to begin preparation for the following spring.
Assuming hunting season is over for many of you, we now have more time available to do things at the farm in hopes of making the next year and many years ahead the best they can be! And what an important time it is… Now is a great time to service equipment, look for sheds and find trails, run traps, build turkey blinds, and frost-seed clover. Of equal importance to me and many other hard-core land managers is the fact that this window of time is also ideal for performing TSI (timber stand improvement) work. Practices such as hack-and-squirt, hinge-cutting, and prescribed fire come to mind right off the bat, and planting trees can also be done at this time.
To many land managers, winter “wonder” land can have a different meaning than is intended. Sure, you get a sense of wonderment looking at the frost or snow cover blanketing the landscape, but I’m referring to the fact that most folks “wonder” what the heck kind of tree that is when there isn’t the first leaf on it. So how can you hinge-cut a tree to daylight a field edge, or treat undesirables to release or plant an oak if you can’t identify trees in the winter? Personally, I’d rather be sitting in a tree in October than storming through the woods cutting them down while they’re more easily identified. That leads to my goal for this article, which is to get you on the right track towards becoming an expert in identifying trees after they have senesced for the winter. These tips should in turn also improve your identification skills and thus your management efficiency year round.
Summer Practice – Don’t look up
When foliage is present, and you can much more easily identify a tree by looking up at the canopy- Don’t. Force yourself to take a guess before giving in and gazing up. Try getting a first inclination from looking at the bark characteristics and the stump. Once you’ve done that and still aren’t sure you can get hints by looking at the forest floor. What leaves are on the ground? Are those acorn cups, or hickory husks and nuts? Sweet Gum balls? Maple Samaras? In time you’ll be surprised how easy it is to walk around calling trees by name without having to strain your neck, and soon thereafter searching the leaf litter won’t be necessary in most instances.
Up close and personal – Get twiggy with it
Not every tree you need to ID in the wintertime will be out of reach, even if it is you can find clues as previously mentioned on the forest floor. If there aren’t old fruits, nuts, or leaves lying around, or the tree is too young to produce a crop, you can always find a few twigs lying on the ground if the tree is too tall for them to be in reach. Regardless of the size or age of the tree, a simple twig is all that’s needed to positively identify every tree in the woods.
Growth patterns on the branch of deciduous trees are usually either considered opposite, or alternate. That means stems, buds, and leaves are attached either opposite, or alternate of each other, which can quickly narrow down your choices. There are several acronyms that have been used to remember who’s got opposite arrangement, but many refer to scientific names. There used to be a simple acronym for all of the oppositely arranged trees and shrubs, but a bunch of taxonomists got together recently and broke up the honeysuckle family into several. As a result, the best acronym I can come with for now is: MAD Cat Paw, Buck Honey Vibe; which stands for: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Catalpa, Paulownia, Buckeye, Honeysuckle, Viburnum. Catalpa’s arrangement can also be whorled but is never alternate, buckeye includes Horsechestnut, and Viburnum also includes Blackhaw and the Elderberries. This acronym is a useful tool for beginners, but like the English Language, there are exceptions and taxonomists are always changing classifications, so use this as a crutch to get started, then throw it away.
Leaf scars on the twigs give answers as well. Although all hickories have three lobed leaf scars (kind of like Mickey Mouse’s head), a black walnut or butternut’s looks distinctly like a monkey’s face, and the less common butternut has fuzzy eyebrows. Can’t decide if you are looking at a white or green ash? Look at the leaf scar on a twig. A white ash leaf scar takes on a crescent or U shape and the green ash has more of a half moon or D shape. Magnolias (including yellow-poplar), and sycamore show distinctive stipular leaf scars appearing as rings encircling the twig.
Dormant buds can also be used in identification. If the slick grayish bark and persistent tan leaves don’t tip you off you’re looking at a beech, check the buds. They look like little cigars. A persimmon tree’s bark is a dead giveaway on a large tree, but what about the young guys? If you see jet black, triangular shaped buds on the twig, you’re probably looking at a persimmon.
Know your sites
Probably the easiest way to narrow down the many species of trees is to understand the sites they commonly occupy. Some species such as Yellow Poplar are aggressive, vigorous growers and need a deep, well-drained soil to defeat the competition. Others, such as post oak can tolerate shallow upland soils, thus giving them a competitive edge on poorer sites. Aspect is another important feature to consider. Northern red oak more often than not favors cove-type sites with a Northern exposure. It could be a pH thing where you have species that will tolerate one extreme or both. Pin oaks are never found in alkaline soils. What about moisture? Bitter pecan may only be found in areas that are too wet for its close relatives from the hickory family to grow. “Site plastic” species can throw you a curveball, so you’ll have to rely on other methods for identification.
From a distance
With a little practice, one can learn to identify different species or types of trees from a distance, even in the dead of winter. Distance ID doesn’t seem very important at first thought, but after mastering this technique you can ponder TSI ideas while sitting on the deer stand. This practice alone saves precious time and offers a real-time, birds-eye view! Now you can theorize which trees to hinge cut for directing deer traffic, or where you want to enhance bedding/feeding areas based on wind direction, lay of the land, AND mast trees present. Interested in finding a small piece of property to purchase or lease? Knowing your trees from a distance can provide a sneak peek from the road before asking for a tour.
To Master the distance tool, it’s important to know your trees from up close at first. Much like calling tree names out by not looking up, you can practice making educated guesses from afar and then move in for a closer look to verify. Before long, general physical traits such as branch habit, crown shape, or overall stature will provide answers. For example, a black gum’s branches grow at 90-degree angles from the trunk, making them easily picked out from the crowd. Sycamores are often the tallest trees out there, and their smooth, white bark can nearly blind you on a bluebird day. Down here in the South, a white oak often keeps its dead, brown leaves for much of the winter, and the bur oaks often take their time to change color and fall, and can be further separated from a white oak because of their gangly, twisted form. Our previously described, “opposite or alternate” acronym can also be used from a reasonable distance with a pair of binoculars.
Trees are indeed individuals, and the more time you spend getting to know them as individuals rather than “just trees,” the sooner you’ll realize how easy it is to put a face on them in a crowd. In time there will be no need to remember a silly acronym, dig through the leaves, chew on a twig, haul an ID book around, or look up. Having an expert knowledge of your trees will cut down on the time you spend “wondering,” and will give you the tools you need to turn a property with potential into a property with presence.