“Tree Blindness” and Getting to Know Your Neighbors

In a 2017 article by Gabriel Popkin the author addresses what he dubs “tree blindness.” The phenomenon, experienced by most, of going through our daily lives in close proximity to trees without recognizing them or their benefits.

As a forestry and wildlife major, I tend to think of these uses in terms of ecological functions and wood products generation. Popkin also illustrates how trees can have historical and cultural value as well, whether as a food source or as leftover relics from our country’s metes and bounds system of land division.

In my personal time I greatly enjoy hiking and backpacking, and being able to identify trees is the first step in being a more conscientious walker in the woods. Popkin also rightly points out that being more familiar with the trees around us can help us to recognize when something’s wrong with, or unhealthy about the tree. The eastern hemlock comes to mind. My first hiking trip in North Carolina I saw plenty of hemlocks downed or stripped of most of their branches, and until I later learned more about them and the hemlock woolly adelgid I just assumed it was a natural part of their lifecycle.

Like any new skill identifying trees takes practice, and there’s no better way than hands on. Let’s take a look at my first attempts at tree I.D. from Glen Echo Ravine here in Columbus.

Tree Identification

The first tree I attempted gave me the most difficulty but I ultimately identified it as Ostrya virginiana, or American hophornbeam. I found this tree on a slope a good ways back and up from the creek by a shady path. In this first picture we can see (albeit blurrily) the alternating, simple leaves without lobes. Next we look a bit closer at the leaves and observe the veins which don’t run parallel to the leaf margin, and the sharp teeth. If you look closely at the teeth you can see how the leaf if doubly serrated, where each large tooth has a smaller one attached. Finally we see a picture of the tree’s brown, scaly bark which, according to the University of Kentucky covers it’s hard wood which is sometimes used to make tool handles.

Next I moved down the path and my attention was drawn by some massive leaves. This tree was found at the edge of the tree line near a drainage ditch. In addition to being huge, the leaves are heart-shaped, simple, unlobed, and with nonparallel veins. These features, along with the whorled arrangement of the leaves seen in the second photo, lead me to identify it as Catalpa bignonioides, or the common catalpa. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, it’s also called the “cigar tree” because of it’s long, cigar-like fruits.

Across the trail and into the creek’s flood plane I found a tree with beautiful, shaggy, pinkish-orangish bark. While we again find alternating, simple, and doubly serrated leaves without lobes, the distinct diamond shaped leaves and shredding bark identify this tree as Betula nigra, or river birch. The Arbor Day Foundation says river birch has been used for smaller projects for families and individuals, but that it is largely dismissed as useless for large-scale lumber production.

Nearby in the same flood plane I examined a remarkably straight tree. Early settlers in America also took notice of the tree’s straightness, and used it’s logs to build log cabins, and later railroad ties. Again, more simple leaves in an alternating arrangement, but this time with four distinct lobes which easily identify it as Liriodendron tulipifera, the yellow poplar.

Further down the trail, I came across a large, sprawling tree with an alternating leaf arrangement. In the photo below you can see the simple, elliptically shaped leaves, with many lobes. These factors, and the relative uniformity of the sinuses led me to identify this as Quercus alba, or a white oak. This strong tree was used in military boats all the way up through World War 2!

The next tree I found was located on the edge of the tree line just before the flood plane changes to a steeper slope. Back to alternating, simple, unlobed leaves. We also see serrated edges here, but a close look shows only single teeth this time. The leaves, along with the distinct, smooth, grey bark suggest this is Fagus grandifolia, the American beech. American settlers used the leaves to stuff their pillows. With those teeth? Ouch!

Now from beech to beach. I found this next tree growing right alongside the creek. It’s large leaves and distinct flaky, multicolored bark (camouflage-like patterns midway up, to white and smooth up top) were certainly eye-catchers. The alternating, simple leaves are lobed and the general outline is circular. If you break a leaf off, the base will be hollow allowing it to contain next year’s bud (as seen in the second picture). This gentle giant is Planatus occidentalis, the American sycamore. Due to its ability as an early colonizer, it has been used in certain instances for site rehabilitation.

Finally we have what I identified as a white ash, or Fraxinus americana, the tree that makes up wooden baseball bats. In the photos below we can see our first oppositely arranged leaves (second picture), as well as pinnately compound leaves (first picture). Each leaflet has it’s own small stem, and the elliptical leaves lack any visible serration.