Ah, trees. Some say you can’t see the forest for them. Others say that if they fall in isolation, they completely defy physics and land without a sound.  Depending on the animal you ask, they range in tastiness.

Trees are quite literally everywhere, although the layman, when pressed, could hardly separate the oak from the maple, or the honeysuckle from the buckeye. New York Times author Gabriel Popkin published a solid article on ‘tree blindness’, talking about how little the average person knows about trees – sure, they’re everywhere, but what do you know? Can you show me a walnut, and tell me how it differs from a locust?

I had to face my own ‘tree-blindness’ when I first enrolled in this class. Despite growing up on a farm and out in nature more than I was inside, I’m ashamed to admit that I really only know the easily recognizable trees – the maple and the oak, for starters. I knew not to walk barefoot under a locust tree, or those thorns will go straight through your foot. I knew that the cows liked the hedgeapple trees, because the fruits are good to chew on. Past that, I knew next to nothing.

Popkin is right when he says trees are important, crucial to life, and there was once a point in time where it was crucial to be able to pick one apart from the other. Not being able to tell them apart could really mean the difference between life and death, whether that means your house falls from the tree, or you eat the wrong fruit. We’re lucky in this day and age to not have to worry so strongly about such things, but being able to identify trees in the field is arguably as important today as it was back then!

Unfortunately, due to a heavy work-load between school and working to support myself, I was not able to make it out to take advantage of any of the beautiful protected natural spaces in Columbus this week. Instead, I took a walk around campus between classes and picked out some favorites that really stood out to me!

Let’s look at some examples of trees found on the campus of (THE) Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio. It’s worth noting that some of the trees on our campus were planted, and are ornamental – they might not be naturally occurring in your backyard, so don’t expect to find all of these on your next hike!

**References to ‘the field guide’ or ‘the guide’ refers to A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs by George A. Petrides (1972), unless otherwise noted. Other sources used will be hyperlinked to the first sentence referring to them, and then referred back to after that.**

I’m going to start with one of my personal favorites, the ornamental American sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua).

What a big, pretty guy to walk past early in the morning.

Look how perfect this simple lobed leaf is, I love his cute little arms!

These tree stars definitely look as delicious now as they did in Littlefoot’s time. (Did I date myself with that reference?)

We’ve got these all over where I’m from in southern Ohio – the cows love to tear the low-hanging branches down and strip them of their leaves. They must taste awfully good, though I can’t imagine they taste that much better than the tree next to them. I’m not a cow, though, so who am I to say? Maybe they have a more discerning palate than I could ever imagine.

Liquidambar styraciflua has very distinct star-shaped leaves, much like the maple but still quite unique – it is immediately identifiable by those long, broad points on its great big, dark green toothed leaves, alongside its spiky green fruits (even the guide says there are no other plants that resemble it in the summer when it’s in full leaf). This definitely makes it an easy first step toward curing your tree-blindness – keep an eye out for these big, distinguished gentle-trees on your next walk!

The fruits are most commonly found opened underneath the tree – most people recognize the fruit husk immediately, even if they didn’t realize what they were at the time! They’re called “spike balls”, “burr balls”, “gum balls”, or “spike fruits” (personally, I prefer gumballs).

The way most people see the seed pods – brown and fully opened under the tree. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons.

The American sweet gum is currently classified under the family Altingiaceae, but used to be family Hamamelidaceae (the witch hazel family of flowering woody shrubs, which makes sense why it was changed). It’s a very valuable deciduous tree in the southeastern United States, and is a common ornamental tree in temperate climates (like here!)

According to Petrides in the guide, harden clumps of the ‘gum’ (the sap it exudes) are often chewed by people. Sweet gum also takes on a strong veneer when it’s polished, so the wood of the sweet gum is widely used in furniture today. The seeds feed songbirds, wild turkeys, bobwhite, gray squirrels, and chipmunks – which is likely why the empty seed pod is the most readily recognized.

Next, we’ll take a look at a more native tree, the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

Not the ~best~ picture but you can see the knobby, unique trunk of the redbud, despite the photobombers behind it.

They have quite distinctive heart-shaped leaves with a multitude of dangling little seed pods all over the branches. This is a really great picture to see all the little details with the seed pods and those very unique leaf shapes.

Cercis canadensis shares its distinct heart-shaped leaves with the catalpa (although the catalpa’s leaves are much bigger) and several species of lime, but the small pods made it easily distinguishable as a redbud. Another very characteristic trait of this tree is the way the twigs have a tendency to zigzag back and forth, giving it a very erratic shape. The guide cites its leaves as being very distinctive, which is definitely true – I’ve never seen a shape quite like this before!

A relative of the eastern redbud, the Cercis siliquastrum, common name the Judas-tree, has quite the morbid tale explaining why it produces such bright, prolific pink flowers in the spring. It’s said that Judas Iscariot chose the redbud to hang himself from after betraying Jesus, and the tree was filled with such shame that it turned red forevermore. How neat.

It’s worth noting that there are some redbud species that will bloom white, but I’m a sucker for fables and supernatural reasonings for mundane happenings. Sorry for all you’ve been through, siliquastrum.

Now that the mood has been sufficiently dampened, let’s take a look at Liriodendron tulipifera, or the tulip tree, who sports some pretty unique leaves!

This young tulip tree is far from maturity – you can tell how small it is juxtaposed against the full grown trees behind it (more photobombers, of course, might as well use them to my advantage).

It looks like someone’s taken a big bite right off the end of it! Darn vandals…

Liriodendron tulipifera is one of only two plants in the genus Liriodendron (the other being the Lirodendron chinense) and is the tallest eastern hardwood. When it reaches its maximum height (up to 120ft in Appalachian forests!), sometimes it won’t even sprout branches until 80-100ft up! This alone makes it an extremely valuable tree for timber, since there’s no errant branches to worry about when it’s processed. The guide hails it as second only to the sycamore in trunk diameter and occasionally highest. It also calls it “the handsomest eastern forest tree”. I’d be inclined to agree. Are you busy this Friday?

Nevertheless, It grows fast and does not have any of the unfortunate weak wood or short lifespans of other fast-growing hardwoods. The flowers are big, bright, orange and yellow things that produce an almost alarming amount of nectar. The tulip tree is also the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. High praise for a single little tree!

There are no other species that resemble this tree, according to Petrides, and it is easily distinguishable in all seasons. It’s easily and readily propagated from cuttings, can live hundreds of years, is the exclusive host to some species of moths and butterflies, and it is gorgeous to see in bloom. I think I’ve changed the answer of my favorite tree – it might just be tulipifera now. Friendship ended with pine, now tulipifera is my best friend.

To avoid falling down quite the rabbit hole talking about my new friend, let’s hurry right along to another fun ornamental species – and an endangered one at that! Ginkgo biloba, the ginkgo tree. Not necessarily a ‘wild’ tree, as it’s been heavily cultivated since it was found to be the only extant ginkgo species, but fascinating enough that I’d be remiss to not include it.

A living fossil, a relic of the past, 290 million years old… Well, not this one specifically, but the species.

The only genus of tree in the world with leaves shaped like little fans.

I was certain I had misidentified Ginkgo biloba here when I started researching the tree, but the shape of these leaves is far, far too distinct to posit that it could be anything else. There are fossils that resemble the living species today eerily closely, with the fossils dating back 170 million years! Imagine going almost completely unchanged for all that time.

Most of the information here comes from this article by the Arbor Day Foundation, although I also used the Wikipedia page to get more general information that I could quickly cross-reference.

Ginkgo biloba is the only living species of the order Ginkgoales, which dates back over 290 million years. Native to China, they were brought to North America as an ornamental, due to their unique leaves, and their affinity for being very green one day to turning yellow and losing every single leaf all at once the next. They are prized for their gorgeous saffron foliage in the fall. They are long-living, pest resistant, and are extremely hardy, being almost completely unaffected by most urban pollution.

The ginkgo has very long, deep roots to withstand wind and snow, and does best in an area that gets a lot of water while also draining well. The leaves are small, alternate, and simple, and usually have one notch or lobe, but unlike almost every other tree, the lobe is on the front of the leaf, between the two main veins that split into either side of the fan.

No other species in the genus Ginkgo has been recorded in fossil since the end of the Pliocene. In fact, ginkgoes are classified in their own division, Ginkgophyta, since they are so very unique. It’s amazing to be lucky enough to find one of these trees right on our campus!

We’ll swing from very rare to very common, and take a look at a gorgeous Quercus alba, a white oak.

When they’ve got the room to spread out, boy do they.

The classic oak leaf shape, but with blunt, rounded lobes.

Quercus alba, the white oak. It has alternate, simple, lobed leaves with a wide, classic silhouette that leaves it recognizable from a distance. It produces acorns annually, unlike its cousin, the red oak, which produces acorns every two years. The fruits are the classic acorn shape (other oaks, like Quercus macrocarpa, the burr oak, have acorns where the cap covers most of the acorn fruit and has long, arching spikes along the cap), shown below against its leaves.

Not a fantastic example, but an immature acorn on a white oak (the leaf here is the distinguishing factor versus the tree in the next photo).

These are immature acorns on a different oak, but you can see even between the two immature fruits the difference in the caps.

Because they are so prolific at producing acorns, white oaks are extremely important in deciduous ecosystems, providing a plethora of food for animals that don’t hibernate over the winter, since the sheer amount of acorns a tree can produce can feed more than its fair share of squirrels while contributing to their food stores that they bury before the ground freezes.

According to the guide, the easiest way to identify a white oak amidst other types is how shallow the lobes on the leaves are. Overcup oaks and mossycup oaks have leaves of a similar shape but the lobes are deeper, where swamp oak’s lobes are shallower and, remarkably, the lumber of the white oak is indistinguishable from that of the swamp oak (although you won’t find Quercus bicolor unless you’re looking in marshy, swampy lowlands).

While on the topic of oaks, let’s move to another common oak in central Ohio –  Quercus rubra, the red oak.

A younger red oak, definitely dwarfed by the trees around it.

Much the same shape as the white oak leaves (spoiler: most oak leaves are similar shapes), but with sharp points instead of rounded lobes.

Like the white oak, Quercus rubra has the basic oak shape to its simple alternate leaves, although the lobes are much deeper, and each of the points of the leaf are tipped with sharp points where the white oak was rounded. The distinctions between oak leaves is one of the easiest ways to tell them apart (which was one of the first things I started learned to help with my own tree blindness), although they have different acorns (like shown above) and can have distinct bark patterns, which can also help with identification in the winter when, for obvious reasons, there are no leaves to compare between.

Unlike the white oak, the red oak takes two years to produce mature acorns, which means that it retains the young acorns in the winter when it loses the rest of its leaves. Oak trees in general are important for wildlife, like I mentioned above with the white oak providing food for animals. According to this article by the Arbor Day Foundation, the red oak also provides food when it doesn’t produce acorns, since deer will eat the twigs and buds in the winter. They also grow extremely quickly – over two feet per year! – and love sunlight, which makes it a very common (and quite tall, standing at 70’+) sight in the overstory in forest ecosystems.

The next tree is one I know very vividly from growing up at my grandparents’ farm. Planatus occidentalis, the American sycamore, is easy to distinguish by its wide leaves and peeling bark.

The American sycamore has very wide, flat leaves that turn very intense, beautiful, ribboned colors in the fall.

The distinctive patchy, peeling bark of the sycamore.

The bark on the sycamore will peel off of the tree and often coil up on itself, creating little crunchy tubes that are definitely part of many formative memories I have growing up. The sound it would make under the car tires as we rolled up or away, the way the barn cats would play with the big, flat leaves, hunting for the biggest leaves myself to show my grandparents – ah, those were the simpler times.

The guide honors the sycamore with the remark that, although sometimes the tulip tree may be taller, the sycamore is generally considered the “most massive tree of eastern U.S.”. It grows to its largest size in the Ohio and Mississippi river basins, and is considered old at 500-600 years (the mighty redwoods and sequoias scoff at amateur numbers like those). Native Americans would use sycamores for dugout canoes. The cavities in the tree are used as homes by opossum, raccoons, and wood ducks.

Fascinated by the bark on the sycamore, that was fresh in my mind when I stumbled across another tree with astoundingly beautiful bark  – Acer griseum, the paperbark maple.

Looks like a normal tree from far away, but…

…this bark is an unmistakable trait of the (aptly named!) paperbark.

The barely lobed leaves are not much to write home about, not until the fall.

A trifolate-leaved tree was not something I had really intended to find on our campus, but lo and behold, nature astounds me once again. The Missouri Botanical Gardens has a great article detailing the finer points of this beautiful tree, including its copper- or cinnamon-colored trunk and branches, paired with its bright red fall foliage. They note that in the spring it produces, and I quote, “ornamentally insignificant” yellow flowers, at which I scoff. Your flowers aren’t insignificant to me, Acer. I’ll appreciate them, even if Missouri doesn’t.

Final Thoughts?

Honestly, I had far more fun with this assignment than I expected! Finding a few trees around campus and learning how to identify them, what made them similar to and different from other members of their family, and learning each one’s little quirks definitely helped me overcome at least some of my tree-blindness. I find myself stopping on campus now to look at trees more closely, which is something I would never have considered doing before this.

This class already had me excited about botany, but now that I’m already able to put some of what I’ve learned to use, it’s made me even more intrigued to learn about the greenery that surrounds us! I’m sure my fiancé is already tired of listening to me yammer on about the tulip tree, but I’m excited to share my passion with other newly-established phytophiles like myself.