Bark Giveaway

Walking in the woods or an arboretum this time of year is a good time to play a game of tree identification. You say, “But trees are leafless!” No problem. Often, all you need is to look at the bark.
Paperbark birch bark
You might think a white-barked birch would be an easy identification. Not necessarily. A white-barked birch might be, instead, a European birch (Betula pendula). This one is distinguished from our native paper birch (B. papyrifera) by the dark, diamond shaped fissures on its bark. Or Himalayan birch (B. jacquemontii) or Asian white birch (B. platyphylla). Of course, these last three species aren’t likely to turn up in our woodlands.

I’m often snagged by cherry birch (B. lenta), whose bark isn’t white at all, but whose young bark resembles young cherry bark, then morphs with age into longitudinally elongated plates. The giveaway for cherry birch comes with breaking a small twig and smelling wintergreen.

Trees like red oak (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (A. saccharum), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and ash (Fraxinus spp.) are easy to identify once you know their bark.

I can immediately identify hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) because its bark is one of my favorites, pure gray and punctuated by corky ridges.
Hackberry bark
On a clear, wintry day when the sun hangs low in the sky, the shadows create a pattern that recalls those crisp, achromatic photographs of lunar landscapes.

Another of my favorites is American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), whose bark looks like striated muscle. And juneberry (Amelanchier spp.), pale gray with charcoal gray striations. And paperbark maple (Acer griseum), with shiny, copper-red bark.

Paperbark maple bark

Paperbark maple bark

If tree bark offers no leads about a tree, a few dead leaves on the ground or clinging to stems can help out. Beech leaves make identification especially easy because beech is among the few trees that clings to almost all its dead leaves all winter. The lower leaves of some oaks also are reluctant to drop.

Bark, leaves, and aroma aren’t the only things that scream out a tree’s name. Everyone knows the distinctive weeping form and light-colored young bark of weeping willows. Less universally known is the very distinctive form of pin oaks (Quercus palustris): lower limbs sweep downward, mid-height limbs grow out horizontally, and upper limbs point skyward.
Pin oak tree form
On most trees, stems are alternate, that is, they don’t grow directly opposite each other. So if a tree — one that grows wild in the northeast, at least — has opposite stems, I can limit the choices to just a few trees: dogwoods, maples, ashes, or catalpa.

This tree game is more than fun; it’s also useful for identifying firewood. A couple of years ago, I bought some firewood that was billed as swamp oak, which is sometimes a name for pin oak. The firewood’s bark had distinctive, long, flat-topped ridges, which a friend finally identified as belonging to American linden (basswood, Tilia americana). It’s not very good for firewood.

(For a lot more about identifying trees by their bark, in the Northeast, at least, see the book Bark by Michael Wojtech.)

Chestnuts Roasting on an . . . Well, not Exactly

Moving indoors, to the fruits of my labor. Or, rather, the nuts of my labor.

A few years ago I came up with yet another way to roast chestnuts, one that makes the pellicle, that thin, brown skin clinging to the nutmeat, easy to remove. After giving each nut a slit perpendicular to its axis, I spread the nuts in a shallow layer in a covered pan set in a hot oven or on top of the wood stove for 45 minutes. During that time the nuts steam from their own moisture. Then off comes the lid for another 15 minutes of cooking to let the nuts roast and the shells and pellicles (the skin around each nut) turn crisp.
Chestnuts roasting
Massaging each nut without breaking up the nutmeat cracks the shell and the pellicle so that both come off easily — usually. The nuts have the mealy texture of a baked potato and a wonderfully sweet flavor.

Bark Futures

I’m planning to enjoy more fruits — or, rather, nuts — of my labor in years to come. Two Korean pine (Pinus koreansis) trees should eventually get me home-grown pine nuts. As should a lacebark pine (P. bungeana).

The lacebark pine, once it gets older, will also bring me attractive bark to admire as it naturally peels away in brown, rust, green, and cream-colored patches.

Other home-grown bark beauty here includes persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), whose bark is like alligator skin (but not scary), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)

Bark of persimmon and sterwartia

Persimmon (left)                           Stewartia (right)

and my previously mentioned favorite, hackberry, a fast growing tree now almost 15 feet tall that I started from seed I pulled off an old tree. The hackberry’s bark is just starting to develop those attractive, corky ridges.
Young hackberry bark



Hey Bud, ‘Sup?

Nothing like winter to force me to take a closer look at my trees and shrubs. “To see what, you may ask?” To look at their buds, within which lie the makings of this season’s flowers and shoots. Not only are the buds quite distinctive, but they also offer a crystal ball into the future, which is very important to me as a fruit grower.

Trees’ and shrubs’ fruit and shoot buds look different from each other. It’s the fatter ones that open to become flowers and then, barring damage from late frosts, insects, diseases, or hail, fruits.

Last year, perhaps because of dry weather or a late spring freeze, my pawpaw crop was a failure. This explains why I now see so many distinctive plush, velvety, fat, brown buds — flower buds — lining the stems. For any fruiting plant, a light crop of fruit one year generally makes for a bumper crop the following year.

Pawpaw buds

Pawpaw buds

Cornelian cherry buds

Cornelian cherry buds

My cornelian cherry tree also prognosticates a bumper crop, even more obviously, because its flower buds stand prominently proud of the stems like buttons on the ends of short stalks.

On peach trees, flower buds develop only on one-year-old stems. The flower buds aren’t that distinctive except for being fat. The buds at some nodes, the junction where leaves met stems last summer, come in triplets, one single, small shoot bud wedged practically into hiding between two big, fat flower buds. The buds tell of a good crop of, at least, flowers.

Peach buds

Peach buds

Apple buds are different still. Their flower buds are mostly on spurs, which are short, stubby growths that elongate only a half and inch or so each season. Not all buds on these spurs will open to flowers, though. Some — again, those that are less fat — will open to shoots that will grow only a fraction of an inch longer and then flower the following year.

Apple buds

Apple buds

Pear buds are very similar to apple buds, the main difference being that I find it harder to differentiate, especially now, between their shoot from flower buds. As spring inches closer, these and other buds will all begin to swell to let their plans be better known.

A Bud Is Like A Crystal Ball


All this staring at buds is not just for winter entertainment. It also guides me in pruning.

To ripen a fruit demands a lot of a plant’s energy. If a tree or shrub bears too many fruits, it will, once danger from frosts and many other hazards are behind it, naturally shed some of the excess. But what’s left might still be more than it could ripen to perfect size and flavor for us humans.

One reason I’m stomping around among my trees and shrubs outside is to prune them, and one of many reasons that I prune them is to remove some of the fruits before they even begin to form. Cutting back some stems cuts off some flower buds, which makes for less fruits.

With all their fat flower buds, my pawpaw trees will get a severe pruning. The same for my peach tree, but not quite so severe. I’ll wait on the apples and pears until it becomes more evident what’s what.

Not that my sole purpose in pruning is to cut back fruit production. Some kinds of pruning cuts also are meant to stimulate vigorous shoot growth to reinvigorate a plant or provide flower buds for the following year. I’ll also prune to let branches bathe in light and air, keeping photosynthesis chugging along this summer and limiting pest problems. My cuts will also be directed towards maintaining strong limbs able to support a good crop. (Interested in more about pruning? See my book, THE PRUNING BOOK.)

Nice Bark, Woof, Woof


Looking at buds isn’t the only winter entertainment provided by my plants. How about checking out their bark?

Among the trees and shrubs I’ve planted, my three favorites barks are those of hackberry, river birch, and stewartia. Hackberry has a gray bark with ridges on it that, when struck by low winter sun, have a distinct, achromatic light and shadows that remind me of photos of the lunar landscape. My tree still have some years to grow before their bark is notable; for now, I enjoy looking at he bark on some wild plants I know.

Hackberry bark

Hackberry bark

River birch bark has a cinnamon-colored bark that naturally curls and peels off up and down the trunk to create a colorful mix of creamy white, pink, and brown colors.

River birch

River birch

My Japanese stewartia has the bark that would stop traffic, if there was traffic here. This bark is mottled with dark brown, light brown, and silvery patches. In a few months, leaves will mostly hide the bark, but then white blossoms that look much like camellias will continue the show.

Stewartia bark

Stewartia bark