Looking at Trees, Part 1: Winter

Time for a confession: I don’t actually hug trees. I’m not a big hugger to start with, and trees are scratchy and unyielding. Many have ants trailing up the grooves, baby snails hatching in knots, sap dripping down in slow motion. I may not be a literal tree hugger, but I am a tree lover and an enthusiastic tree watcher.

My tree book collection has exploded in the past year with natural histories, field guides, and photography books. In the space of a year, I have started to look — really look — at trees for the first time. I was originally going to write this post in the fall, when trees still had leaves. But winter is actually a very good time to start looking at trees. Leaves can be so distracting. Without them, you can see the bones underneath and appreciate the architecture.

Precise tree identification is probably best left to the experts, but it’s actually not very hard to get started with the basics. I’d like to share a little of what I know in hopes that the boring old tree outside your window will suddenly become a lot more interesting. My earliest tree lessons came from my mother, who gave me the names to eucalyptus, liquidambar, and mulberry trees early in my childhood. I’m grateful. (Incidentally, this post is only about broad leafed trees. I’m just not that into conifers yet, other than the wonderful coastal redwoods I grew up with. Sorry.)

Looking at Branches: Opposite vs. Alternate

If you can categorize a tree as having opposite branches, you can rule out a whole lot of other possibilities. Only a few tree families have opposite branches, and there’s a handy little mnemonic to help you remember which: Damp Horse (dogwood, ash, maple, paulownia, and horse chestnut). Winter is a good time to check out whether your neighborhood trees have opposite or alternate branches. Be careful, though. While black ashes form clear, dark crosses across the sky, you’ll have to look closer with most other trees. Also, alternate trees will have the odd opposite pair, and vice  versa. If you see many pairs of opposite branches, however, you’re probably on to something.

See the way the branches grow out opposite each other to form Vs or crosses? This is an ash tree.

Looking at Fruit/Seeds

Botanists have lots of different names for different types of fruit (drupes, pomes, arils…). I don’t know all of them yet, and you really don’t need to in order to pick out several of the major tree families.

Acorns = Oak (Quercus)

Only oaks bear acorns, so if you see green acorns on a tree or brown acorns beneath one, you’re looking at an oak. Oaks are a crazily diverse family of trees. This photo shows an oak with smooth, deeply lobed leaves, but there are also oaks with sharp lobes (black oak), small spiny leaves (coast live oak), and even smooth, elongated oval leaves (holly oak). Most oaks lose their leaves in the fall, but live oaks stay green year round.

As a very rough generalization, most mature oaks are stout trees with irregular (non-symmetrical) crowns and gnarled branches and trunks.

Paired Samaras = Maple (Acer)

I probably don’t have to tell you what a maple leaf looks like, but not every tree that has maple-like leaves is actually a maple (see plane trees, next), and if that wasn’t enough, there are also maples with leaves that look like ash leaves (box elder). However, all true maples have paired sets of winged seeds, which are called samaras. They spin like helicopters when you drop them, and I’ve always thought they were an instance of awesome design by nature.

Maples include sugar, silver, and Japanese varieties. Many maples turn beautiful colors in the fall, especially on the east coast. Branches are opposite, and as far as I know, all maples are deciduous.

Soft Seed Balls = Plane Trees / Sycamores (Platanus)

 If you see a bare winter tree with camouflage like bark (big gray, white, tan, and/or orange splotches) and 1″ seed balls hanging down, especially near the top of the tree, you’re looking at some sort of plane tree (sycamores in American English). The seedballs are a little spongy and surprisingly light for their size. If you pull one open, you’ll find that it’s filled with white fluff, and the brown outside is actually formed of lots of tiny seeds packed together. They’re kind of like inside-out dandelion puffs.

Plane trees have big maple-like leaves, but good luck trying to tap one for syrup. At least in my area, they are one of the most common street trees.

Wicked Spiky Seed Balls = Sweetgum / Liquidambar (Styrax)

There are probably other trees that produce round, brown seed balls. But the sweetgum is so common and distinctive that I thought I’d point it out to you. The sweetgum has star-shaped, vaguely maple-like leaves that turn brilliant colors even in mild California autumns, and after they’re all gone, spiky seedballs hang down from the bare branches like ornaments. Unlike the plane tree’s seed balls, these are spiked all over and very hard. The seeds are dispersed through holes in the ball, leaving the spiky structure intact. These things decompose very slowly — amid the brown ones of this year, you can often see grayer, smaller seed balls of previous years.

Whew! I could go on for a while, but I don’t want to be a bore. I noticed today that some of our street trees (Bradford pears) are already putting out new buds. California trees live in a state of perpetual confusion about when they’re supposed to do what. In the spring proper, I’ll bombard you with information about flowers and leaves.

Have you ever taken a close look at your hardworking and underappreciated street trees? What kind of trees are around you?

12 responses to this post.

  1. Wow! I admit that I’m fairly oblivious to trees. CatMan and I have been reading books in Spanish, and our latest is JR Tolkien’s Trilogy of the Rings. The book is literally filled with descriptions of forests and trees… I can’t count the number of times that we have come across some unknown word and both of us are pretty sure it’s some sort of tree. Then we look it up only to discover that we haven’t any idea what sort of tree it is even when we know the English name!

    For me, though, I just love the words… there are so many tree names that are just wonderful words to roll over your tongue. Ash, Elder, Juniper… but my current favorite is Sycamore… what a word! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57KdYXzXDMM&feature=related


    • Hi EcoCatLady!

      It’s taken me a while to start paying attention to trees. I reread LotR maybe 5 years ago and didn’t pay much attention to the descriptions of trees in it (except the Ents, of course), and it was only during my second year in England that I started to really notice that the trees there were totally unlike the ones I was used to in California. Now, whenever I travel anywhere, I can’t help but notice how very different they look, smell, and even sound.

      I also love tree names. Did you know that a sycamore in British English refers to a very different tree than a sycamore in American English? I love ash and rowan, juniper and poplar, aspen and cypress and sequoia. They almost sound like they belong in some sort of magical incantation.


      • Oooooooh, cypress and sequoia! Those are wonderful. And rowan totally makes me think of this song… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwRnKeFOhVQ&feature=related

        Hmmm… I think I tend to view the world through songs, sorry about that.

        Anyhow, the thing about how they have totally different trees in England reminds me of something completely unrelated… bear with me here.

        Soooo, I have terrible food allergies, and some of them are baffling to my doctors. Apparently, I’ve got allergies that are almost unheard of here in America (like celery) but are very common throughout Europe. So, my stepmother, who is an allergist, was telling me about how there’s some new theory that many food allergies are actually initially triggered by exposure to certain tree pollens in childhood. So she has this theory that my violent celery allergy actually has something to do with exposure to some sort of birch tree that I encountered when I was an exchange student living in Norway.

        I have no earthly idea if there’s any truth to that theory or not, but I found the concept fascinating… too bad I wasn’t paying enough attention to the trees to enjoy their beauty while I was there!


        • That is an interesting theory! I’ve never even heard of an allergy to celery. You are indeed special. 🙂 I didn’t know that birches produced a lot of pollen. I did read that our tendency to plant male trees (because female trees, like ginkgoes, produce messy and/or smelly fruit) has increased pollen counts, so we’ve effectively swapped cleaner sidewalks for more allergy suffering. Hmm…


  2. Posted by Paola on 12/31/2011 at 00:08

    Thank you for this beautiful post! I’ll translate it into Italian for my husband who, like you, is a tree lover. I love trees too, but never looked at them like you and my husband do. I think I’ll start from now on.


    • Hi Paola,

      I’m so glad you liked it, and I hope you enjoy tree watching! I’ll have more posts about trees as the seasons shift. Your husband probably grew up with very different trees in his childhood. I sometimes think it would be fun to go on a tree tour through an area — I certainly would have loved having a tree expert to guide me around the rainforest in Hawaii and the deciduous woods of northern England when I was there!


      • Posted by Paola on 01/01/2012 at 02:50

        I showed your post to my husband. He enjoyed it a lot, and also discovered something new, the alternate vs opposite branches thing: he usually goes for leaves and fruits to recognize and classify trees. We of course have some problems with names and it is not always easy to find the exact Italian name for the English name of a tree (but Latin helps). Lovely the idea of a tree tour! The guide should be multi-lingual, though. Two summers ago, in the Bavarian forest, my husband was really puzzled with trees and their German names!


  3. Ah!! This is so awesome!! I really like trees, but I don’t know anything about that!!! I’m so glad you wrote this post. And I always curious what those spiky ball things were 😀


    • Hey ParisianFeline,

      I was where you are not very long ago — interested, no idea where to start. I’m still bumbling around. 🙂 I think the best way to go is to get a tree person to take you for a walk and introduce you personally to your local trees, but there are a number of useful books available, too. I recommend The Urban Tree Book by Arthur Plotnik, which identifies common street trees that are probably all around you.

      Aren’t the liquidambar ball things fun? I’ve heard they can actually puncture tires, and some cities have actually banned planting new liquidambar trees because the spiky balls are a nuisance. Oh well. I think they look like huge alien spores and are pretty cool.


  4. What a great idea for a post, Jennifer! Trees are taken for granted at the best and resented at worst. Whenever someone complains of having to rake leaves in the fall, I wish I could slap them and remind them of the free services the tree provides, like clean air, shade, and healthy soil.

    Just a month ago the City planted trees along my street (I live in an apartment above a store in a small shopping district), replacing the dead and dying trees that had made the whole area look bad all summer. I look forward to seeing them wake up in the spring!


    • Hi Andrea,

      I do think it’s sad that many people value trees only for the shade they provide in the mall parking lot. For me, they are a highly visible, daily reminder of the biodiversity on this planet, and I must say, I find many of them more congenial than my human neighbors! My street has a mixture of older ash trees and younger maples, bradford pears, carobs, Chinese pistaches, olives, sweetgums, and holly oaks. Although it’s not incredibly diverse, we get plenty of shade, a little fall color, and lots of different berries and seeds and acorns for the local bird and squirrel populations. Trees add so much to a street.


  5. […] taken you on a number of virtual nature walks (woods, trees, poisonous plants), but now I’d like to introduce you to the most common and least loved […]


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