Trees every Kentuckian should know
In response to Rick Marsi's list of the "Top 10 Southern Tier Trees You Should Know", here's my list of ten trees that I think every Kentuckian should be able to recognize. Why? Because as well-rounded citizens of the Commonwealth, everyone should know by sight a few of their state's native trees.
The trees in my list are fairly unmistakable, with a little study. Start with these ten, learn a few more, and soon your friends will think you're a tree expert.
1. Baldcypress(Taxodium distichum)-- Easily identified by a strong, mostly-straight trunk, fine feathery foliage that is shed in autumn, and the knees and buttresses they develop when grown by or in water. This icon of the South is one of North America's longest-lived trees, commonly living 400 to 600 years old and sometimes twice that.
2. Beech(Fagus grandifolia)-- Smooth, silvery-gray bark and (in winter) dead leaves that persist on the tree into mid-winter make the beech easy to recognize. If in doubt, look for other beech trees nearby; it is rare to see a single beech tree because beech trees send up suckers. Beechnuts are a highly valuable wildlife food. The museum of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, KY, has a section of a beech tree trunk on which is carved, "D. Boon Kilt a Bar, 1803." It was probably carved by someone else as Boone was living in Missouri by then. .
3. Shagbark hickory(Carya ovata)--Easily identified by its unique, peeling bark. If in doubt, check for a large compound leaf with 5 leaflets. Hickory nuts are also a highly valuable wildlife food. Hickory lumber played an important part in American history -- it was the preferred wood for wagon and buggy axles and wheels. It is one of the best firewoods, producing long-lasting coals, few sparks, and a lot of heat.
4. Virginia pine(Pinus virginiana) -- Easily identifiable by the many small cones which the tree never seems to completely shed, the short, two-per-bundle needles, and often, an overall "scraggly" appearance. In my part of Kentucky, Virginia pine is found on dry, rocky ridges where it doesn't have much competition for sunlight. It is valuable as a pioneer species in areas that have been eroded or burned. It is also grown and marketed as a Christmas tree. The pine seeds are an important food for small mammals and birds; larger mammals graze the branches, especially in winter.
5. Sycamore(Platanus occidentalis)-- These giants of the lowlands are easily identified by their very large leaves and the white bark of their upper branches. Young sycamores often have mottled, peeling patches of bark on their lower trunks with the bark becoming white at the top of the tree. In late summer through mid-winter, look for dangling seedballs, which give the tree its nickname, "button-ball tree".
6. Persimmon-- (Diospyros virginiana) Easily identified by its unique, dark-colored bark which is broken up into small rectangular blocks so the trunk of the tree appears to be covered with wooden alligator skin. In autumn, look for orange fruit about the size of a ping-pong ball. Persimmons are greatly enjoyed by most wild animals and birds. The seeds in the persimmons can be cut open and "read" to predict the severity of the next winter, according to folklore. Early settlers developed many recipes for persimmons and also used persimmon juice, bark, and twigs in various medicinal brews.
7. Eastern redbud(Cercis canadensis) -- A small tree of the forest understory, easily identified by pink-to-lavender blooms that burst out from the branches and trunk before the leaves appear in spring. Toothless leaves are dark green and more or less heart-shaped. and older trees often have several trunks. Pea-like pods form on the branches and trunk in mid-summer and persist on the tree through mid-winter. Notable for its beauty, not for its wildlife value.
8. Eastern cottonwood(Populus deltoides)-- Easily identified by its leaves, fruit, bark, and form. Cottonwood leaves are shiny, toothed, and triangular ("deltoides"). The fruit, a dangling string of miniature pods, is the source of the name "cottonwood". When ripe, the pods burst open, releasing cottony seeds into the wind. The bark is deeply-furrowed, coarse looking and gray-brown in color. A mature cottonwood has massive branches and trunk, and may reach 100 feet in both height and spread. Loves moist areas. Do children still blow through a folded cottonwood leaf to make it whistle, or is that a forgotten art? I taught my children, and I certainly intend to teach my grandchildren, should I be so blessed.
9. Sassafras(Sassafras albidum)-- An understory tree that is easily recognizable by its oddly-shaped toothless leaves. On a single tree, some leaves will be mitten-shaped, some will have three "fingers" and some will be oval. The sassafras is one of the first trees to show autumn colors. Sassafras tea was once considered a good remedy for many ailments, and root beer was made by fermenting sassafras root with molasses. (See "Sassafras, the root beer tree".)
10. Southern magnolia(Magnolia grandiflora) -- Easily identified by its large, dark-green leaves which are leathery, oval-shaped, toothless, and simple. Noted for its large, fragrant, white blossoms, this big tree is another icon of the South. In Kentucky, we're at the northern edge of its range.
11. White Oak(Quercus alba) -- Even in winter the white oak is easy to recognize by its rugged, strong appearance and its light-gray ("white"), finely furrowed bark. In maturity, it is a large tree as wide or wider than it is tall. It has large branches (often, nearly horizontal), and a stout trunk. The white oak can live 300-500 years or more, and it deserves recognition for that fact alone. It's also a highly valuable wildlife tree. In Kentucky, it's impossible to estimate how many gallons of whiskey have been stored in white-oak barrels, how many cabins had white-oak planks on the roof, and how many hand-dug wells were lined with white oak.
Oops, looks like I have eleven instead of ten. I miscounted and now I can't make up my mind which one to leave out!