The falling of leaves, that shedding of the suddenly unnecessary, undresses an urban beauty usually draped in colors that go beyond the relatively monochromatic shades of bark. As foliage starts to shiver and shake and pigeon-fly in earnest, the limbs sway in the slow dance of an autumnal Salome. They unveil until finally naked, muscularly curving and dangling, scrolling woodily across bright, cold mornings.
In November we see not only more of the unfettered tree but also settings and props forgotten or heretofore undiscovered. Views obscured in satiny emerald and warm copper clear and come into focus, revealing fire escapes, painted doors, next-door neighbors and hibernating gardens. The leaves remaining transform to peppering accents, flicking faded maple reds and russeted elm onto concrete, sidings, attic windows and brick.
Trees are bizarrely delightful and surround us on nearly every terrestrial surface. Despite our close quarters, most of us don’t know trees as we know the rest of our neighbors. Often we hardly acknowledge their beautifully ubiquitous and stories-tall forms. I feel that it’s time we took a look and got on a first-name basis.
There are a lot of ways to acquaint oneself with a tree. First of all, I suggest you take a walk. Most cities have parks; go to your favorite one or visit their website to see if they offer guided tours. If they do, sign up. (You can also look to your city’s parks and recreation department, urban ecology centers, and universities.) Bring a friend if you’d like, or go alone and devote your whole self to the place and plants within. Ask questions. If you’re good at remembering things, remember them: the nomenclature, the shapes, the colors and textures of bark, lingering leaves, berries, and nuts. If you’d like you can write notes or take sketches, but if you’re on a first date it might be best to just spend some time together to see if you click.
A wonderful thing about trees (and other plants, as well as just about anything even some humans) is that you can name them to your liking. This is especially useful when you’re starting out. While it is often helpful and even imperative to know scientific names, it’s almost never necessary in the beginning. I used to work with kids at the Arnold Arboretum and we would call the beech trees “Elephant Trees,” much more for their grey and stretch-marked skin than for their size. If you remember “elephant tree” rather than “beech tree,” that’s fine, and even lovely. There’s no need to be formal about anything; this is all casual. A first date is not a wedding (though at certain times of the year there may be flowers). If you are hoping to eventually become a botanist wholly and microscopically devoted to beeches, no one’s going to care if you started out calling a tree that looks like an elephant a tree that looks like an elephant.
Purple European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’), photographed at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Source.
If you can’t find a guided tour, take yourself for one. You can stroll with the sole intent of making your own independent observations or print off a street tree guide and go a-hunting. Grow Boston Greener has a truly guide for the greater Boston area. Other city-specific web guides include those for New York City, Richmond, California and Dallas, Texas. There are also some handy ones from Cornell and The Virginia Urban Street Tree Selector, as well as real live books like Lelsie Day and Trudy Smoke’s Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York Cit, and Peter Del Tredici’s brilliant Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. (I’ll elaborate on Del Tredici’s in a minute). If a search for a resource specific to your city yields no results, never fear; plenty of street trees, like the Norway maple and horse chestnut, are regionally ubiquitous. Get an idea about what you might find in your neck of the country and see if it’s there. You’re certain to find something, whether it’s what you were looking for or not.
Arboreal winter habits. Source.
If you decide to get a little more serious I recommend a good field guide. Sometimes you can take them out of libraries, an opportunity to be taken advantage of, especially when you’re looking for one that will suit your needs. Some are illustrated with photographs while others are drawn by hand. Some focus on leaves and others on bark. Regardless of the guide you get you’ll want at least one with a good key. Keys can be frustrating to use, especially at first, but they are indispensable. The instruction on how to use them is indispensable, too; far too often people complain that a field guide is faulty before admitting that they have no idea how to utilize their key.
Since winter is nigh I’m going to share a few of my favorite guides that are most useful for ID’ing in leafless conditions. (While there are also apps that serve many of the purposes of a paper-made field guide, I’m pretty old-fashioned and don’t know enough of them to suggest one over the other. Please free to opine on them in the comments.)
This is a very enjoyable book. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the author and photographer, Michael Wojtech, and found him to be a delightful, quirky young naturalist who quotes Dillard and designs cool t-shirts. The key is not quite infallible, but bark, the wonderfully varied skin that shelters and encases everything within—cambium, phloem, heartwood and the like—is not only varied from species to species but, quite often, from specimen to specimen. Our native sugar maples, for example, go through so many transformations in a lifetime that they are nicknamed “the chameleon tree.” Because of this variability a field guide that relies so heavily upon bark for purposes of identification is bound to give you a taxonomical hiccup here and there. Luckily it also includes illustrations and descriptions of other parts of arboreal anatomy—leaves, seeds, etc—so a positive ID is always within your reach. BARK is a meticulously researched field guide from a lover of forests and aesthetics. It’s a wonderful, slim guide for new and seasoned tree-lovers alike.
The Trees of the Northern United States and Canada
This book is a classic, and as field guides go it is almost biblical in scope. Hard-covered and a buncha pounds, it’s not exactly something that one would enthusiastically carry through the streets and parks on a frigid winter’s day. However, it’s amazing and definitely worth carting about (though I do recommend that you have a backpack so your hands can be free). Of the field guides I have known and researched, this one seems the best all-in-one package for winter identification. (The best that’s under 30 pounds, anyway.) Every entry features wonderfully detailed photographs and occasional drawings illustrating species’ buds, bark, leaves, and mature size. The images of buds, those miniature gift-wrapped packages of gorgeous and varied life, are especially helpful for winter ID.
Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide
While the above books are wonderful, both independently as well as in tandem with one another, their one flaw for the cosmopolitan tree-gazer is their emphasis on natives. Many of the most common street trees, such as Tree of Heaven (of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” fame), Japanese Maple, and Ginkgo, are fairly recent migrants to North America. For these trees, Peter del Tredici’s “Metropolitan Field Guide to plants and trees of the Northeast” is unrivaled for detailing the botanical life that twines and thrusts through our cities. Del Tredici’s book also features dozens of herbaceous plants, thus offering as thorough a census of street plants as you can get without its turning from paragraphs to charts. He also includes cultural uses for plants (ie, whether or not they have been been used for culinary or medicinal use), and little biographies that tell how the non-native plants came to be in North America.
A note on living botanical collections
The species entwined in our botanical gardens and arboreta are another thing altogether. Here in Boston we have Dawn Redwoods from China, mock oranges from California, and a teeny tiny Bald Cypress bonsai, all alive at the Arnold. Though these trees are far from native and atypical to the urban habitat that they’ve found themselves in, they are richly wonderful living things to spend one’s time with. Not only are they beautiful, regal, and impressive for their existence in a place so different from, say, rural China, they also help us to better understand the abundance of diversity within the botanical world. The Arnold, along with many other professionally tended public gardens, carefully dog-tags their plants with labels that include common and scientific names, the botanical family the specimen belongs to, provenance, and other information.
Do you have advice for meeting the trees in your neighborhood?
This post is lovingly dedicated to Kelli Korducki, who recently announced her desire to know trees and asked if I could be of service. Cheers and happy walking to you, Madame Duck! Let us know how you’re arboreal discoveries go.