Barking Up the Right Tree
On occasion, I am tasked with identifying trees during the winter. This can be difficult, especially for deciduous trees that lose their leaves during the dormant season. However, we can also use the bark as a source of identification.
The bark of a tree serves as a protective outer layer, shielding it from various environmental factors, especially since its most vital layer of xylem and phloem are located just underneath the bark. Beyond its functional role, bark can be a key identifier for tree enthusiasts and environmental explorers. Recognizing trees by their bark is an exciting skill that allows individuals to connect with the natural world on a deeper level.
The texture of bark is a fundamental characteristic to observe. It can range from smooth to rough, peeling, or furrowed. For example, the American beech has smooth, silver-gray bark, and is quite distinguishable in the winter landscape. The Eastern white pine exhibits scaly, flaky bark. The river birch, in contrast, has a peeling bark that displays undertones of varying colors.
Bark color can also be a distinctive feature. The red maple boasts reddish-brown bark, providing a stark contrast to the paper birch’s white, peeling bark. The striped maple has a unique, vertical striping pattern in whites and greens, whereas the popular crape myrtle has varying colors of tans, oranges, and browns. In addition, pay attention to variations in color, as it may change with the tree’s age or environmental conditions.
Examine patterns, markings, and other unique features on the bark too. Some trees, like the sycamore, display a camouflage-like pattern, almost appearing like giant puzzle pieces in shades of green, gray, and bone white. While others, such as the cherry tree, exhibit a horizontal pattern formed by their lenticels. These distinctive characteristics can aid in precise identification of certain trees when they no longer have their leaves or fruit hanging from their branches.
Consider the composition of the bark. Is it thin and papery, like that of the river birch, or is it thick and corky, as seen in many of the oaks? Shagbark hickory has long strips of its thick bark peeling away from its trunk as it ages. Understanding the physical makeup of the bark can contribute to accurate tree identification.
While not always a practical method, some trees have distinct odors associated with their bark. The black cherry, for instance, emits a distinctive almond scent when the bark is scratched. The sweet birch has a distinctive aroma of wintergreen when crushed. However, use caution when employing this method, as some trees may have bark with no discernible odor, but their sap could be irritating.
Identifying trees through bark characteristics is a rewarding skill that enhances our appreciation for the diverse flora that surrounds us. By paying attention to texture, color, patterns, composition, and even odor, one can embark on an enriching journey of tree recognition. Whether you’re an avid nature enthusiast or are just starting, exploring the world of trees through their bark adds a new layer of understanding to our connection with the natural environment.
Be safe, and let’s garden together.▼
Tips and Tools for Identifiing Woody Plants in Winter
1. Field Guides and Apps:
Carry a reliable field guide or use a tree identification app on your mobile device. These resources provide detailed information and images, making it easier to compare the bark characteristics observed in the field. They also help to explain minute details that may be observed within the bark. I use Peterson Field Guides as my go-to resource.
2. Seasonal Changes:
Be mindful of seasonal changes. Bark appearance can alter with the seasons due to growth, shedding, or exposure to environmental elements. Consider observing trees during different times of the year for a comprehensive understanding of the trees as well as a renewed understanding of their bark.
3. Local Knowledge:
Learn about the native tree species in your region. Familiarizing yourself with the common trees in your area can streamline the identification process. In addition, understand local ecosystems and what species typically can be found together. This can offer great insight into identification. ▼
Eric W. Wahl is Landscape Architect at Pennoni Associates, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.