Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Dogwood thoughts for Easter

Dogwood symbolism

Wild dogwoodAlmost exactly one year ago, an F3 tornado swept across Christian County, Kentucky. It did a tremendous amount of damage to property and trees and created untold stress, misery and heartache, but miraculously, no lives were lost and we are thankful for that.

The dogwood in the photo at right is blooming in the midst of an area of tornado damage. It seems symbolic. Hope and life is triumphing over tragedy and ruin. It's a fitting message for the Easter season.

Someone was inspired by the beauty of dogwood blossoms to create the following "legend" in a little poem, imparting an Easter meaning to the blossoms. There's probably not even a shred of truth to it (do any trees of the cornus family grow in the Mideast?) but it's a nice story.

In Jesus' time, the dogwood grew
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
'Twas strong and firm, its branches interwoven;
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.

Seeing the distress at this use of their wood,
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
"Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.

Slender and twisted, it shall be,
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
Blood stains, the petals marked in brown,
The blossom's center wears a thorny crown.

All who see it will remember me,
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected this tree shall be
A reminder to all of my agony."

Author unknown

Friday, March 30, 2007

Flowering dogwood: Beautiful in all seasons

Cornus florida

Flowers of Cornus florida
Morguefile photo by ronnieb

The dogwood is one of our loveliest native trees. It is highly attractive in all seasons, due to its graceful shape, upturned branches, attractive leaves, beautiful blossoms, and red fall foliage accompanied by red berries.

Dogwood has the added virtue of being a great wildlife tree. If you want to plant a beautiful tree that will attract birds, you can hardly go wrong with a dogwood. Its berries are eaten by many species of birds (as well as by a number of animals.) My neighbor has commented to me that she wishes the beautiful red berries would last into the winter, but the birds usually remove all the berries in short order.

Dogwood is also strong enough to withstand some wind and ice without serious damage, so that's a big plus for the tree.

It can grow up to 40 or 50 feet in height, and it will be about as wide as it is tall. In other words, you should allow a 25 foot radius around the tree's trunk when you plant it.

Sadly, dogwoods have been decimated by disease for the last few decades. During the 1970's, they began contracting dogwood anthracnose, a fungal infection that kills adult trees within three years and kills young trees in a single season.

Anthracnose has been particularly hard on the wild dogwoods that grow in forest conditions -- shady, humid areas with little air movement where fungus can thrive.

Dogwoods can also get spot anthracnose which spoils the appearance of the flowers and leaves, even though it's not usually fatal to the tree. Powdery mildew can also be a problem.

One of the preventive measures for dogwood anthracnose is to plant the dogwood where it gets full sun and good air circulation. It's also important to keep the tree in good health to improve its resistance. Cornell University suggests providing water during dry spells, avoiding injury to the trunk, removing leaf debris from under the tree, and spraying with fungicides during the spring.

The University of Tennessee Dogwood Research Group (UTDRG) identifies several cultivars that resist the various dogwood diseases. If I were planting a dogwood, I'd look for one of these rather than digging up a dogwood from the woods.

UTDRG developed the dogwood-anthracnose resistant cultivar "Appalachian Spring" which was released in 1998. I like it because it's 100% native dogwood, not a cross with a Korean dogwood. Hopefully, they'll eventually get a cultivar that's resistant to both spot and dogwood anthracnose and powdery mildew as well.

Meanwhile, don't be afraid to plant a dogwood. Look at all the beautiful, healthy dogwoods that are growing in other people's yards! Chances are good that you'll be able to grow a beautiful healthy dogwood too.

Related:  Dogwood thoughts for Easter

Native beauties: Redbud and dogwood

Learning landscaping lessons from nature

I drove across part of northern Christian County by the backroads today. The dogwoods and redbuds are surely at their best right now.

Notice in the photo above how the dark evergreen background at right makes the blooms of the redbuds and dogwoods stand out clearly. This would be a nice effect when planting them around your home.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Eastern redbud: A tree I love

Cercis canadensis, a native ornamental tree

Redbuds and dogwoodRedbuds and dogwood along the roadside,northern Christian County, KY

I love driving along the backroads of Christian County this time of year and seeing the redbuds and dogwoods in bloom. The dogwood above is just beginning to bloom. From my observation over the last 15 years, I would say that we have many wild redbuds and some dogwoods. The redbuds do well along the edges of woods because they like full sun or partial shade.

In the May 20, 1896, edition of Garden and Forest, Professor Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) wrote, "The Redbuds, as usual, opened with the flowering Dogwoods, and it cannot be too often said what a fine forest border or background to a shrubbery these two trees make at this season." This is still true! They are especially beautiful against evergreens.

I ordered ten ornamental trees from Arbor Day about a dozen years ago. I don't remember all of the trees that were included, but the ones that survived were 3 redbuds and 2 Washington hawthornes. (All the trees were tiny bareroot sticks, and I didn't baby them much.)

I had read that redbuds were understory trees so I planted a couple of them under a big maple tree. I guess I was thinking I'd be able to see their blooms as I came and went through the kitchen door.

Truly it is a miracle that they survived at all in the dense shade of that big water-sucking maple. One of them has never yet bloomed. Both are growing very slowly and they're contorting themselves, growing sideways to the light. This little story falls under the category of really dumb tree mistakes.

I planted the third tree outside the maple's canopy where it gets good sunshine for at least half the day, and it's amazing how much better it has done than the other two. It began blooming several years ago, and it's at least twice as tall -- about 10 or 12 feet. It blooms nicely.

The seeds of the redbud aren't an important food for wildlife. In fact, Hightshoe classifies redbuds as having very low wildlife value. The tree is slow growing, and it's short lived (50 to 75 years.) It's also prone to weather damage, though it's not bothered much by insects or diseases.

Because it's a beautiful tree, I forgive it for having these faults. I love redbuds in spring with their lavender blossoms blooming close against dark, bare branches. I love their heart-shaped leaves in summer. I love their yellow leaves in autumn. And even in winter, the tree is a pleasant sight, usually with several trunks and branches clustered at the top of each.

Redbud flowersRedbud flowers

A good blog article about Eastern redbud: "Texas Redbuds"

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tips for Buying a Tree

Advice about how to choose a tree

Buying a tree at discount storesIt's that time of the year again when trees are available at grocery stores and discount centers. There's nothing wrong with buying one of these trees, but choose carefully.

Have in mind what kind of tree you want. You don't want to plant a problem. Think about the water and soil needs of the tree, its susceptibility to weather damage and disease, and its wildlife value, as well as its mature size and its branching and rooting patterns.

Be ready to get your tree as soon as the store receives its tree shipment. Typically, trees at a store will not receive as good of ongoing care as a nursery or garden center tree will have. By buying the tree soon after it arrives, you can spare it some stress. You'll also have a better selection to choose from.

Be sure that the branch tips are still green and alive, not dry and brittle. Check the rootball -- has the soil dried out and shrunk away from the sides of the pot? If so, the fine hairs of the roots are probably damaged.

Trees with leaf buds will probably withstand transplanting better than trees that have leafed out. Always avoid trees that have leafed out already if local trees are still in bud stage -- the foliage might suffer frost damage if you get a sudden cold spell!

Look for a stocky, strong tree that has a single, straight central trunk . Branches should be well-distributed around all sides of the trunk, not clumped to one side. The tree should have wide angles where the branches join the trunk. Avoid trees that have branches attached at 30° angles or less because these weak branch crotches may split in bad weather.

The roots should not be coming out the bottom of the pot. If they are, that's a pretty good sign that the roots don't have enough room and are probably growing in circles inside the pot

Finally, be ready to plant the tree the same day that you buy it -- and know how to plant it correctly.

As always, the Extension Service is a great source of information -- call them and ask for advice about any detail of buying and planting a tree! Your electric company and telephone company have guidelines about the location of tall trees, as well.

Missouri State University recently issued a press release with advice about buying trees. It is brief, but has some good suggestions.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

American Elm Before and After Dutch Elm Disease

Ulmus americana, a great American native tree

American elm

I have long admired this tree in Hopkinsville, KY. I've never held one of its leaves in my hand, but I've stood under it, looked up at its leaves, and thought, "My gosh, that is an elm tree!"

Though the American Elm population of the United States has been decimated by Dutch Elm disease, some elms have managed to elude or fend off the disease, and this seems to be one of the survivors.

I believe this big beauty is ulmus americana, the American elm. The rock elm is also a tall tree, but it has a narrower crown with the branches growing in more of a vertical direction. The American elm is noted for its fountain shape and wide crown, and this tree certainly exemplifies those characteristics.

An interesting thing about elms is that their bark was sometimes used to make canoes in old times. The Shawnees often skinned a long tube of bark off an elm tree at the river's edge and put together a canoe that was good enough to get them to the other side. (Of course, this killed the elm tree.)

One of the best places to look at photos of elms in the days of their glory is the American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936 (AEP) collection, which is owned by the University of Chicago. These photos document some of America's great American elms before Dutch Elm disease began to take its toll in the 1930's.

I don't think I can legally use the AEP images under the guidelines of fair use, so I'll give a link to a search for "American elm". Be sure to look at photos 1 and 14, if you look at no others.

There's good news about modern American elms! Several cultivars with resistance or tolerance to Dutch elm disease have been developed in recent years. Look for Princeton, Liberty, Valley Forge, New Harmony or Jefferson in the name. Hopefully, even more cultivars will emerge as time goes by.

The buds of the American elm and its seeds (produced in spring) are eaten by over a dozen game birds and songbirds, as well as rabbits, squirrels and foxes. Along streams, the tree also provides food for wood ducks, beaver, and muskrat. Deer may graze on the twigs and foliage.

The American elm can live up to 200 years, and it tolerates a wide range of growing conditions. It can be expected to grow to a height of 20 feet or more within ten years. It is a native tree of nearly every state east of the Rocky Mountains.

The elm's stout branches resist weather damage, but the tree is vulnerable to various insect attacks (galls, borers, etc.) as well as various types of wilts, cankers, etc. (in addition to Dutch elm disease.) You may have to spray it from time to time. Your county extension agent should be able to advise a schedule of preventative care. With some attention to its needs, it will be a tree of generous shade and great beauty and grace.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Green ash: Beautiful, fast growing tree in peril

Fraxinus pennsylvanica

Green ash tree blossomsGreen ash blossoms

Our green ash tree is blooming, and its blossoms are interesting in their own way, though not as flashy and visible as the ornamentals and fruits. In fact, an unaccustomed eye might not even notice these strange, dark little flowers.

This summer, the seeds will appear in clusters. They are eaten by songbirds such as cardinals, purple finches, and cedar waxwings, by quail and wild turkey, and by rodents and some other small mammals. Green ashes are not considered an important wildlife tree, though they certainly have some wildlife value.

One of the virtues of green ashes is that they are fast-growing but have a fairly long life compared to many fast-growing trees. Their lifespan can range from 100 to 150 years.

Our green ash is a large mature tree. It has grown in an open, moist area with no other tree nearby to affect its spread, and it has a truly beautiful shape. It has suffered ice damage in a couple of bad storms we've had, but we pruned its broken branches and it still looks good.

However, I think that it is partially hollow and that yellow-jackets have built a nest in it! I see them flying up to a certain area of the trunk and then disappearing.

Ash trees of all types are in grave peril from an exotic insect that is making its way across the nation -- the emerald ash borer. Apparently it was brought in from China in wood pallets. Much information about this tree killing pest is available on the internet. Probably the best thing you can do to protect your ash trees is to avoid bringing ash firewood onto your property.

I haven't heard that the emerald ash borer has reached Kentucky yet, but it is probably just a matter of time because it is in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. I read that the National Forest Service has stockpiled ash seed just in case the emerald ash borer wipes out the entire U.S. ash population. Let us hope it doesn't come to that, but it doesn't look good.

Green ash tree Our green ash last September

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Beautiful blossoms of the wild plum

Prunus americana

Wild plum blossoms
Wild plum blossomsWild plum blossoms

The wild plums are blooming now and their fragrance is wonderful. I enjoy walking through the part of the yard where they grow and experiencing their blossoms with several of my senses.

Wild plum blossoms always remind me of my childhood on a ranch in Rock County, Nebraska. , Wild plums grew in the shelter belt north of our house. We came through that "tree-pen" (as we called it) often as we walked home from school, and when the wild plums were in bloom, we brought my mother a bouquet of plum blossoms.

My mother didn't mind our massacre of those little plum trees because she never picked plums there anyway. The plums in the shelter belt had very sour yellow fruit. We all greatly preferred the wild plums from our pastures in northern Loup County -- sweet red plums.

Tonight after the sun was completely down, I went out to the plums in our yard for a few minutes to see what their blossoms are like after dark. (I know this may seem odd, but I'll explain shortly.) The fragrance is just as sweet with a bit of night dew on the petals . There wasn't much natural light on the plums due to cloud cover and the new moon, but they were illuminated a little from the distant yard light. The white blossoms were the only part of the little trees that were visible. One might imagine they were floating in the air.

Why was I curious about their appearance at night? This 1923 poem, by Oreck Johns:

Wild Plum

THEY are unholy who are born
To love wild plum at night,
Who once have passed it on a road
Glimmering and white.

It is as though the darkness had
Speech of silver words,
Or as though a cloud of stars
Perched like ghostly birds.

They are unpitied from their birth
And homeless in men's sight,
Who love, better than the earth,
Wild plum at night.

By Orrick Johns. Published in The New Poetry: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Verse in English. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923. The MacMillan Company, New York, 1923.

Related post: Bud and twig of American wild plum

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Eastern redcedar, pioneer species

Juniperus virginiana

Eastern redcedar in an abandoned field

This field in Christian County, Kentucky, is apparently enrolled in the Crop Reduction Program (CRP.) The land hasn't been touched for several years. No crops have been raised. There's been none of the usual plowing, cultivating and harvesting. It hasn't even been mowed.

Look how the young redcedars (juniperus virginiana) are coming into the abandoned field. The redcedar is a pioneer species, and old fields are one of the places where it frequently invades and establishes itself. Hardwoods may eventually follow, but first redcedars will have their day.

I took this photo this morning, and you can see that the cedars are still in their reddish-brown winter color. In summer, they will become much greener.

The berry of the redcedar is eaten by many birds and animals and the seed is distributed as it passes through their digestive tracts. This is apparently how the seeds have spread across this field. It also accounts for the many, many redcedars that grow in fencerows here: they are the result of birds perching on the fences.

It is interesting that the red-cedar's berry is not really a berry at all, but rather a small, plump, sealed cone. Each cone has up to four seeds in it.

When I was a kid, growing up in the Nebraska Sandhills, the eastern redcedar was widely planted in windbreaks. I suppose it was inevitable that eventually the tree would go wild as birds and animals spread the seeds. When I revisited the Nebraska Sandhills in 2000 for the first time in 15 years, I was shocked to see little cedar trees scattered across many pastures, much like the field in the photo above! Nowadays, ranchers are fighting the tree, instead of planting it. It's ironic.

A similar situation exists in the Missouri Ozarks:

Early surveyors found very little cedar—only on bluffs where fires could not reach it. Nowadays it is everywhere, especially in old fields and disturbed soils. Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Forest Service biologists are trying to get rid of the cedars that have invaded old fields, to restore the cedar-free savanna and prairie-like habitats that once characterized the flatter uplands of the Ozarks.

Source: "Native plant of the month: Red Cedar" by Dr. Lynda Richards, published in The Ozark Chronicles

The field in the photo above will soon become a field of red-cedars if nature is allowed to take its course. The field is not beyond reclaiming yet. It could still be brush-hogged. Most areas could be plowed without too much trouble from tree roots. But if the cedars are allowed to continue growing here, this soon won't be cropland anymore.

My personal opinion: I hate to see this field being taken over by redcedars when we are looking at corn shortages due to the demand for corn for ethanol. It is time to eliminate some of the crop reduction programs and bring fields like this one back into production.

Related posts:

A few champion Eastern redcedar trees
Eastern redcedar: A tree that birds love
Attracting bluebirds
Large Eastern red cedar tree at Fort Donelson, TN

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The ongoing quest for my persimmon trees!

Bark of the persimmon tree; Diospyros virginiana

This evening, my son and I walked down a narrow back-road near our home. The road has an interesting mix of natural features. It starts out on top of a hill in a wooded area and goes down the slope to a valley with a small stream. Along the way there are woods, pastures and fields along the roadsides.

Persimmon barkWe noticed several persimmon trees growing along the roadside in the valley, so this might be a good place for me to dig up a seedling or get a cutting of persimmon root.

I will actually need to acquire several persimmon trees because they are not self pollinating, according to the nursery catalog that I was reading a few days ago. I guess I'll have a little persimmon grove.

There's a black walnut growing fairly near the place where I want to plant some persimmons, so I was a little worried about that. Black walnuts emit a chemical called juglone which is poisonous to some plants. However, the West Virginia University Extension Service and various other reputable internet sites say that persimmons are tolerant of juglone, so I guess I don't have to worry about that!

I also learned that I can get a bundle of 50 persimmon trees from the Kentucky Division of Forestry for just $30, but that's approximately 45 more persimmon trees than I want. Even if I plant 10 and half of them die, I'd still have 40 extra persimmons. I suppose I could try to give them away.

The Kentucky Division of Forestry's order form can be downloaded as a pdf document (574 K.) It lists about 30 species of native tree seedlings that are available. (All are native except the Chinese chestnut.) Prices are good through March, 2007 -- just a few more days.

Related post: I want a persimmon tree!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blue Spruce: Beautiful and Beloved American Tree

Picea pungens

Blue spruce needles and conesNeedles and mature cone of Blue Spruce
US FWS photo

One of America's loveliest and most-loved native trees is the blue spruce (picea pungens). It's also called the Colorado spruce or the Colorado blue spruce. "Pungens" in its Latin name refers to the sharpness of its needles. "Blue" in its English name refers to the distinctive blue-green color of its needles.

Arbor Day Foundation reports that the tree was unknown until 1862 when it was found growing at high elevations of the Rocky Mountains, in meadows and on moist slopes along streams. As one might expect from a tree that chooses such places in nature to grow, it prefers rich, gravelly, moist soils and a sunny location.

Despite its preferences, the blue spruce is a tough tree that will tolerate sandy soils or even heavy clay soils. It won't survive in a site where it frequently stands in water, but on the other hand, the tree does need to be watered during periods of dry weather.

Its blue coloration is caused by a waxy silver-blue powder called "bloom" that is naturally formed on its needles, especially in summer. The South Dakota Division of Forestry assures us that the intensity of a blue spruce's color is determined by the genes of that particular tree, not by the care the tree has been given.

Blue spruce Christmas tree at the White HouseThe perfect conical shape of the blue spruce and its excellent needle retention has made it a popular Christmas tree. The 2004 White House Christmas tree was a blue spruce. In the White House press release photo at right you can see the symmetrical, graceful shape that is characteristic of the species.

Blue spruce are long-lived when grown in good conditions. They are mature at 250-350 years and may live beyond 400 years. They are resistant to wind and ice damage, but they do have some fungal diseases and insect problems, so they may require spraying from time to time to maintain their health.

Many cultivars of blue spruce are available from nurseries. Most have been selected for their coloration or for their resistance to disease. If you plant a blue spruce, allow enough room for its ultimate growth. It can attain 75 to 100 feet of height, and its spread will be 20 to 35 feet.

Blue spruce are good wildlife trees. Birds use them for nesting, roosting, and winter cover. Their needles are eaten by grouse and the seeds are enjoyed by chipmunks and many songbirds. Rabbits, squirrels, porcupines, deer, elk and mountain sheep also eat various parts of the tree (bark, twigs, seeds, and/or needles.)

The blue spruce is the state tree of both Colorado and Utah. And according to Wikipedia, "The National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. is a 40-foot (12 m) Blue Spruce planted on the Ellipse in 1978."

When I was young, growing up on a ranch in Nebraska, my father planted two beautiful little blue spruce trees on our south lawn. When I revisited my childhood home a few years ago, it was wonderful to see what fine big trees the two blue spruces have become in about 40 years.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Attracting bluebirds

Trees and plants for bluebirds, advice about bluebird house placement

Eastern bluebirdEastern bluebird - United States Geological Survey photo

If you want to attract bluebirds year after year, consider planting some of the fruit-bearing trees and other plants that they like. Fruits are an important part of their diet, though they eat insects, snails, and spiders as well. Here are some of their favorites:
trees for bluebirds:
Wild cherry
Other fruit-bearing
plants for bluebirds:

Virginia creeper
Poison ivy
Wild grape

Where to place a bluebird nestbox:

In unspoiled nature, bluebirds nest in holes or cavities in dead trees. Obviously, dead trees don't have much foliage around the nest area -- just vines, at most. Bluebirds prefer their man-made houses to be placed in similarly open areas. They don't like a birdhouse that is hidden within a bushy clump of leaves and branches.

A steel fencepost in the longest size that you can find (7 ft. is generally available) makes a good, inexpensive pole for mounting a bluebird house. The steel post is difficult for animal predators to climb and if the box is mounted at the top of it, it is at an adequate height to satisfy bluebirds.

Bluebirds (and many other birds) prefer to nest near a source of water. If you don't have a stream or pond, provide a birdbath and be sure to tend to it.

Bluebirds are territorial. They are require at least a 100-yard circle of "private property". If you live in a neighborhood of closely-spaced houses and your next-door neighbor has a bluebird nest in his birdhouse you probably won't get a nesting pair in your yard. However, you'll still be able to enjoy the birds as they come to your yard to feed on the fruit you've provided for them!

Related post: Eastern redcedar: A tree that birds love

Monday, March 12, 2007

Spring in the Woods

March in Christian County, KY

Spring in the woods

Two examples of shaggy bark

Young shagbark hickories and an old silver maple

Young shagbark hickoriesThese two young shagbark hickories are growing in a road ditch. To be completely honest, I call all shaggy-barked hickories "shagbarks", but some of them could be shellbarks. I don't have a clue how to tell the difference between shagbark and shellbark hickories from the bark. There are some minor differences in their leaves and nuts -- enough to make them two separate members of the walnut family.

Bark of an old silver mapleHere is another shaggy-barked tree -- an aged silver maple. Old silver maples develop long scales of bark that are loose at the ends. This sort of bark on any species of tree is called "exfoliating."

It would be difficult to confuse a shaggy-barked silver maple with a shaggy-barked hickory, though, even in winter when no leaves are present. Silver maple trees have a broad, spreading crown with the central trunk breaking into massive branches. The crown's width may even be more than the tree's height! Shagbark/shellbark hickories generally have a much narrower crown, about half as wide as they are tall, and their strong central trunk persists high into the tree.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Hollow Sycamore Trees

Bonnecamp's cottonwood

Dennis showed me an ad on the back of one of his history magazines. A print of a painting, "We Dined In A Hollow Cottonwood Tree," is being sold. The artist is Robert Griffing, and the firm offering the print is Paramount Press, Inc.

The painting shows three huge canoes pulled up to the bank of a river under an enormous tree. The tree has an opening on its trunk and two people are standing just inside it. They are dwarfed by the tree.

In the text of the ad, it tells a bit about the historic event that the painting portrays. A Jesuit, Father Joseph-Pierre de Bonnecamps was traveling with a group of French soldiers, Canadians, and Indians down the Ohio River. Father Bonnecamps wrote in his journal that they had dined inside a hollow cottonwood tree that was large enough to arrange 29 men inside it. The area that he saw this tree is believed to be near present day Pittsburg.

Dennis and I were puzzled that a cottonwood could possibly grow to such tremendous size since their lifespan is quite short, at most 125 years or so. I decided to do a little research on the subject, and it turns out that Father B. was describing the tree that we call the American sycamore.

Here is the relevant portion of Father Bonnecamp's journal entry for the day. I think the first tree he describes might be a honeylocust, and the second one is the big sycamore:

One of our officers showed me a bean-tree. This is a tree of medium size whose trunk and branches are armed with thorns three or four inches long,and two or three lines thick at the base. The interior of these thorns is filled with pulp. The fruit is a sort of little bean, enclosed in a pod about a foot long,an inch wide, and of a reddish color somewhat mingled with green. There are five or six beans in each pod.

The same day, we dined in a hollow cottonwood tree, in which 29 men could be ranged side by side. This tree is not rare in those regions; it grows on the river-banks and in marshy places. It attains a great height and has many branches. Its bark is seamed and rough like shagreen. The wood is hard, brittle, and apt to decay; I do not believe that I have seen two of these trees that were not hollow...

Source: Bonnecamp's journals, at the Ohio Historical Society's website.

A hollow sycamore that could hold 29 men makes more sense, though that's quite a crowd. Sycamores have enough lifespan (often 350 years and sometimes much longer) to grow very large in favorable circumstances. Early American history records many instances where people lived in hollow sycamore trees until they built a cabin.

Dennis told me of another sycamore he has read about -- it's hollow was so large that two brothers lived comfortably inside it for several years. One brother slept upstairs and one slept downstairs!

Most sycamores over 100 years old are hollow inside. Wood ducks, opossums, and raccoons often nest in the hollow, live tree trunks. As Donald Peattie writes in his 1950 A Natural History of Trees (319) that "...pioneers often stabled a horse, cow, or pig in a hollow Sycamore, and sometimes a whole family took shelter in such an hospitable giant, until the log cabin could be raised."

Source: Sycamores at Wellesley Web of Species

Those pioneers who saw the huge hollow sycamores of the primeval forests wouldn't be impressed by this rather small hollow sycamore that we saw at Cumberland Falls in eastern Kentucky (photo below -- I asked permission of the children's mother to take their picture but I didn't get a release to post their photo online. That's why I have blurred their sweet little faces.)

A search for the exact words, "in a hollow sycamore" returns many interesting accounts of people and other creatures taking shelter in sycamore tree cavities.

Hollow sycamore at Cumberland Falls
Hollow sycamore at Cumberland Falls State Park, KY

Related post: Sycamores: Big Trees with White Branches

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Galls on a Young Pin Oak Tree

Abnormal growths caused by insects

Galls on a young pin oak

This young pin oak tree in Hopkinsville, KY, is sadly afflicted with galls. Galls are spots of abnormal growth caused by an insect. A gall can develop in any part of a plant that an insect can burrow into, and in oak twig galls, the insect is usually a small wasp.

The various university extensions are a great source of information about tree problems like this. Here's a summary of the life-stages of gall wasps from North Carolina State University Extension.

Many gall wasps develop for 2 or 3 years in woody galls on the twigs of oaks. Adults then emerge from the twig galls during the winter. They lay eggs in the buds and die. When these eggs hatch, and new growth resumes on the oak, salivary secretions of the gall wasp grub act as powerful plant growth regulators and force the tree to form the gall. Gall wasp galls typically have an outer wall, a spongy fiber layer and a hard, seedlike structure inside of which the gall wasp grub develops. Although gall wasp grubs have chewing mouthparts, they do not seem to chew plant tissue. Evidently the gall secretes nutrients which the grubs lap up.

Source: Galls on Oaks, by James R. Baker and S. B. Bambara, Extension Entomologists at North Carolina State University.

Branches with galls should be removed and destroyed before the tree's infestation becomes serious. Spraying with insecticides is rarely effective because the wasp spends most of its life as a larva, protected inside the gall. There's a small window of opportunity when it emerges to lay eggs.

A University of Kentucky publication about oak galls states that the weight of the galls can cause stress on infected branches, and the deformation can girdle (thus killing, I assume) a branch.

While researching for this post, I learned some sad news (it was news to me!) about oak trees and galls:

Oaks can have numerous types of galls. Out of the over 800 species of gall making wasps in North America, 731 of them attack oaks. Oak deformities are of various sizes, shapes, and colors on leaves, twigs, flowers, acorns and buds. Galls are so commonly found on oaks that many people think the galls are typical parts of the plants.

Source: "Trees With a Lot of Gall (growths called galls on trees)" by Sandra Mason of the University of Illinois Extension.

I have only seen one other oak around here as badly deformed with galls as the little tree in the photo is. The other tree is a mature pin oak, and it is a sad sight indeed. I'm going to try to watch our oaks here at the house carefully. Hopefully we can "nip the problem in the bud" if it occurs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tree of My Life

Poem by Edward Rowland Sill
(1841 - 1887)

WHEN I was yet but a child, the gardener gave me a tree,
A little slim elm, to be set wherever seemed good to me
What a wonderful thing it seemed! with its lace-edged leaves uncurled,
And its span-long stem, that should grow to the grandest tree in the world!

So I searched all the garden round, and out over field and hill,
But not a spot could I find that suited my wayward will.
I would have it bowered in the grove, in a close and quiet vale;
I would rear it aloft on the height, to wrestle with the gale.

Then I said, "I will cover its roots with a little earth by the door,
And there it shall live and wait, while I search for a place once more."
But still I could never find it, the place for my wondrous tree,
And it waited and grew by the door, while years passed over me;

Till suddenly, one fine day, I saw it was grown too tall,
And its roots gone down too deep, to be ever moved at all.
So here it is growing still, by the lowly cottage door;
Never so grand and tall as I dreamed it would be of yore,

But it shelters a tired old man in its sunshine-dappled shade,
The children's pattering feet round its knotty knees have played,
Dear singing birds in a storm sometimes take refuge there,
And the stars through its silent boughs shine gloriously fair.

"So here it is growing still, by the lowly cottage door..."
Delare Cottage, Dighton, Bristol County, MA
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,
 Reproduction Number HABS, MASS,3-DIT,6-1

Monday, March 5, 2007

American Wild Plum: Bud and Twig

Prunus americana

Wild plum bud and twigFlower bud of wild plum in early spring

I was out on the south hillside of our small property today where the wild plums grow, and I snapped this photo of the buds. Unfortunately, these plums always bloom early and are almost always caught in a late frost. The warm days on the south-facing bank trick them.

We have another small plum thicket where the ground slopes slightly to the north, and even though they have full sun, they don't bloom until after the last frost and they usually bear fruit.

I started all of our wild plums from seeds. I was given some local wild plums, a sour yellow variety, and I saved some seeds and planted them. The next year, I happened to be in Kansas when the wild plums were fruiting, and I brought back a mess of plums and planted some of their seeds with my local plum seedlings. This was a sweet yellow plum. I can't tell any difference in the appearance of the trees or the fruit, but I can certainly tell which is which by the flavor.

Wild plums send up a lot of suckers, and their natural tendency is to form a thicket. We put them on a sharp bank in our yard that we don't want to mow, and they are doing a good job of taking over. The trick is that you must stop mowing the area where you want the thicket to develop.

I read tonight in a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture publication that three cultivars have been developed from the American wild plum: 'Blackhawk', 'Hawkeye', and 'De Soto.' I would guess that they are sweeter and larger than most wild plums.

I have written more about my personal history with the wild plum in an article on my other blog, Prairie Bluestem. Please see "Wild Fruits of the Nebraska Sandhills"

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Dugout Canoes

Historic facts about an ancient means of transportation

Dugout canoe underway
A barely started dugout canoe being
carved as a youth project with supervision
and participation by Haida carver Saaduuts.
Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle, Washington.
Photo by Joe Mabel.
Dugout canoes were once an important vehicle on the nation's waterways. They were made from the trees that were available on the riverbank.

The ends of the log were shaped into a point and the bottom of the log was somewhat flattened to make the water glide around it easily and to make the log stable in the water. The top and heart of the log were carved out to make a place to sit and carry cargo.

In Kentucky, a dugout maker would have looked for a long, straight cottonwood, tulip poplar, or soft maple (red or silver maple) growing close to the water. Their wood was soft and easy to "dig out."

Jeremy Belknap, a New Hampshire minister who published a history in the late 1700's, recorded that native Americans of that area often used pine or chestnut and a single man could make a dugout canoe in ten to twelve days.

Native Americans on the west coast used dugout canoes in the ocean for whaling and hunting. A large red cedar was preferred.

The oldest dugout that has been discovered in the southeastern U.S. is believed to have been made by the Algonquian Indians. It was made of a bald cypress log, and radiocarbon dating indicates that it's around 4400 years old. It was found in Lake Phelps, a large natural lake in North Carolina. Thirty prehistoric dugout canoes have been found sunk in this lake!

An interesting article in the "Discovering Lewis and Clark" website describes efforts to learn more about the dugout canoes that Lewis and Clark used in their historic exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.

William W. Bevis, the author of the Lewis-and-Clark dugout article, became experienced with dugouts on the rivers of Borneo. It seems that much of what we once knew in this country about making a river-worthy vessel from a log has been forgotten.

Bevis says that dugouts are much more stable in the water than you might imagine. The weight, bottom-heavy shape and low profile of a dugout help it perform well in a river. (A 30-foot dugout can weigh a ton or more!)

The Lewis and Clark expedition made most of its journey across the continent by water. Their diaries indicate that along the way, they made 15 dugouts. The trees they used included cottonwoods and ponderosa pines.

If you want to make your own dugout, Mother Earth News has an article that might be helpful: The Making of a Cedar Dugout Canoe. The Missouri Department of Conservation offers some advice as well: Digging into Dugout History.

"The manner of makinge their boates" by Theodor de Bry after a John White
watercolor. Native Americans make a dugout canoe with seashell scrapers. 1590.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Red Blossoms of Silver Maple

Acer saccharinum, water maple, soft maple

Silver maple flowers
Flower of silver maple

Silver maple is one of the first trees to bloom in springtime. Its bright red blossoms are small, but they are a welcome spark of color in the landscape.

The flower buds and flowers of the silver maple are eaten by squirrels in early spring when food is scarce.

Silver maple in bloom
Silver maple blossoms
The silver maple's seeds are the largest of all the maple seeds, and are an important food source for squirrels as well as a large number of songbirds, gamebirds, and wild animals . Even bears, deer, elk, moose, and mountain sheep will feast on silver maple seeds. The seeds appear in spring at about the same time the leaves do.

In nature, the silver maple often chooses to grow in moist bottom lands or at the edges of rivers and lakes. In Kentucky it may be found growing with willows, sycamores, hackberries, cottonwoods and river birch.

The silver maple in the photo below is growing near Kentucky Lake in western Kentucky. In this location, the tree probably stands in water occasionally, but the silver maple can survive some flooding.

Silver maples are often sold in garden centers as a fast-growing shade tree. They are prone to storm damage because of their weak, brittle branches, and they are a short-lived tree that will mature at 50 to 75 years and slip into decline soon thereafter. The silver maple is well-known for clogging drains with its water-seeking roots.

Think carefully about where you want to plant this tree! We have three silver maples near our house, planted by a former owner. We've seen some severe storm damage in them several times. Fortunately -- so far! -- none of the large limbs have hit the house.

One of the trees is very large and probably at full maturity. When its health begins to decline (which will be soon,) we will be forced to remove it because of its proximity to the house.

Silver maple at lake edge
Silver maple flowering at Kentucky Lake, near Fenton

Thursday, March 1, 2007

I Want a Persimmon Tree!

Diosppyros virginiana, possum tree, possumwood, common persimmon

I've been thinking about planting a persimmon tree. Persimmon trees are native to this area (and to the entire southeastern United States.)

Around here, people call them "possum trees" because possums love the fruit and will climb the tree to get it. The fruit is popular with raccoons, skunks, foxes, mice, deer, and various birds as well.

Persimmon leaf and bark
Persimmon leaf and bark
USDA photo
The wildlife value of the tree is nice, but I hope there will be enough fruit left for us people, too! I have been reading persimmon recipes for years and I want to try some of them. I have enjoyed the persimmon desserts I've tasted a few times at church potlucks.

The tree is a member of the ebony family, and its very distinctive bark helps to identify it when fruit is not present. The bark is black with blocks arranged in a grid pattern. If you look between the plates, you can see an orange coloration (more obvious on younger persimmon trees.) The bark on older persimmons looks like a wooden representation of alligator skin!

Here's something interesting from history about the flavor of the persimmon: Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame wrote in 1607, "...the fruit [the persimmon] is like a medlar; it is first green, then yellow and red when it is ripe: if it is not ripe, it will drive a man's mouth awrie with much torment, but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as the apricot.."

I know where a persimmon tree grows in the backyard of an old store building. I had been thinking about looking around for a seedling or collecting some seed next fall when the fruit drops.

However, I read somewhere tonight that the tree is best propagated with a root cutting. So I don't know! This old store building sits next to someone's house, and maybe they won't want me to dig around in the yard looking for a root! I would have to ask permission even to look for a seedling.

It may be best to just buy a persimmon tree. A cultivar called "Meador" has been selected for sweetness and is available from nurseries.

Another "Tree Note"Persimmons are not too fussy about where they're planted. They send down a deep taproot, so they can tolerate a dry location. They don't mind heavy soil but they don't like shade. A persimmon should do OK in the site I can offer it, a well-drained south-facing spot on the edge of a broad ridge.

Click any label...

advice (45) alder trees (1) Arbor Day (1) ash trees (11) Atlantic white cedar (1) atmosphere (2) autumn (1) bald cypress trees (8) bark (8) bayberry trees (1) beech trees (8) big trees (11) birch trees (2) black cherry trees (1) black locust trees (2) black walnut trees (7) Bradford pear trees (2) buckeye trees (2) butternut trees (1) catalpa trees (4) cherry trees (2) chestnut trees (1) Christmas trees (1) copyright (1) corkwood (1) crabapple trees (1) dogwood trees (6) drought (2) Eastern redbud trees (5) Eastern redcedar (5) ecosystem (6) education (5) elm trees (4) emerald ash borer (11) Empress tree (2) fast growing trees (7) festivals and carnivals (2) fir trees (1) firewood (6) foliage (11) forest (14) forest fires (1) forestry (7) freebies (2) ginkgo trees (1) hackberry trees (4) hawthorn trees (3) hemlock trees (1) hickory trees (11) historic trees (9) history (42) holly trees (1) honeylocust trees (2) hophornbean trees (1) hoptree (1) hornbeam trees (2) internet (3) invasive (13) juniper trees (5) Kentucky coffeetree (2) landscaping (3) larch trees (1) linden trees (1) logging (4) maple trees (10) mimosa trees (3) mistakes (14) narrow trees (1) native fruit (9) native trees (16) oak trees (38) old growth forests (5) ornamental trees (6) osage orange (5) pawpaw trees (1) pecan trees (1) persimmon tree (3) pine trees (9) poems (5) poison-sumac (1) poplar trees (10) prehistoric trees (3) quizzes etc. (1) rhododendron trees (1) sassafras trees (3) serviceberry trees (2) Silver maple trees (2) small trees (4) spring (7) spruce trees (4) statistics (2) sumac trees (4) sweetgum trees (4) sycamore trees (10) tall trees (5) tree cavities (1) tree identification (8) Tree of heaven (2) tree planting (11) tree problems (40) tree removal (2) tree roots (5) trees for problem spots (7) tuliptrees (tulip poplar) (2) urban forest (7) viburnum trees (1) wetlands (5) wild plum trees (4) wildlife trees (27) willow trees (6) witchhazel trees (1) woodworking (2) yellowwood trees (1) yew trees (1)

Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is