Posts Tagged 'trees'


Carya ovataShagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) is one of the great trees of the eastern forests. This distinctive peely bark makes them easy to distinguish from most of the other species of native North American hickories. However, the Shellbark (C. laciniosa) is also known as Bigleaf Shagbark; its uncommon in rich bottom lands in the arteries of the Midwest, the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.

The hickories make strong, durable wood: I have a hickory hiking stick. And not for nothing was Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson so nicknamed. He was one tough SOB: sword-slashed and bullet-ridden from youth on, as an old man he helped subdue the first attempted Presidential assassin. Pity he was so genocidal.

Hickory nuts are a major food source for wildlife, and most are edible to humans (except the warningly named Bitternut [C. cordiformis]), but among the hickory family only the pecan (C. illinoinensis) is cultivated.

George Bird Grinnell and Others

gbgI went up to Woodlawn Cemetery to visit the grave of Herman Melville, and I stumbled upon George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was born in Brooklyn and tutored by Lucy Bakewell Audubon, widow of John James, at the Audubon home in upper Manhattan. He started the first Audubon organization, believing the name should live on. Bird Grinnell, who was born with that name, was an influential editor of the magazine Forest & Stream, campaigning for national parks, respect for Native Americans, saving the bison, and protecting birds from the slaughter of the millenary trade (one of fashion’s many dark hours). This headstone is modest, by the way, but the family obelisk is pretty imposing (it is a competitive neighborhood; the robber barons flocked to Woodlawn in their effort to perpetuate their names after death).Patricia CroninPatricia Cronin’s stunning “Memorial to a Marriage.” Stunning because this is rather good, and because it depicts two women, Cronin and her wife (a little disconcertingly, they’re both still alive), and you know how often you see sculptures of actual women (non-symbolic), and how often you see sculptures of women lovers. Also, chipmunks, who are all over the cemetery, have burrowed underneath it, which means it has natural history value, too. It’s not as shiny as certain parts of Victor Noir, but give it time… Quercus albaA sprawling old White Oak (Quercus alba), one of the city’s Great Trees, said to be the oldest in the cemetery, but I couldn’t find any dates associated with it. Woodlawn opened in 1863.Procyon lotorA scratchy clambering sound on a tree turned out to be this youngish Raccoon (Procyon lotor) who had clearly just been in the lake. The last time I was in Woodlawn, some 19 years ago (!), I saw a Coyote. QuercusAnd Melville? I’m planning a group walk from his birthplace in lower Manhattan to his death place (26th St.) to his final “resting” place here, c. 17 miles, and wanted to be sure of the destination. The whole unhappy gang is there, with a cenotaph (marker without a body) for Stanwix, who was buried in California. Next to the family plot is a fine oak, Black, I think (Q. velutina), with huge leaves.Gleditsia triacanthosSpine of a Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos); postulated as defense against now-extinct giant herbivores. Sure could do a number on a mammal. Speaking of which:furIt was darker than it looks here, with some white, so I thought skunk.

Brooklyn Update

PrunusWhen my plane descended into LaGuardia last Monday, there were a lot of gray/brown still-wintering trees in evidence. I’d just come from southern-most Texas, where spring was fully in motion, but things are stirring here, too.Polygonia interrogationisQuestion Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) amid the weeping cherries, which were throbbing with honeybees, and an occasional bumble.Bellamya chinensisThe nacreous heart of a Chinese Mystery/Trapdoor Snail (Bellamya chinensis). Who doesn’t like saying “nacreous heart”?Mergus serratorI don’t think I’ve ever seen a Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) out of the water. Note those large feet, set rather far back, and good for diving. Quiscalus quisculaTotally fell for the Great-tailed Grackles down south, but the Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) still has a place in my heart. Falco peregrinusYou may know that I live between two Peregrine falcon scrapes. (Geography is relative.) There is something going on in the 55 Water Street location, either a youngster already or an adult moving. And there this one — note the band/ring — is perched on the construction site across the street from the House of D. Keeping an eye on the home front amid the grooming.Gownus CanalThe Superfund Gowanus Canal. Habitat.Megaceryle alcyonA male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) was fishing in that industrial toilet, diving for the little fish that come in with the tide. Prunus

Downy, Honeylocust

Picoides pubescensThe sound was like typist behind a closed door, in an office with thick carpets. It was subtle. In the clamor of the city, we must strive to hear the subtle sounds, and Green-Wood, wind-swept atop the moraine, is a fine place for the subtleties. This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was pecking away at Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) pods still hanging on the tree, looking for invertebrates that had burrowed into the pods. The seeds inside the pods reverberated to the tapping, making that pleasing, nostalgic sound.

The red patch on the nape tells us this is a male. Our smallest woodpecker, the Downy is the woodpecker species I see most outside of our greenswards, in the ‘hood itself.

Solvitur Ambulando

“And all the leaves on the trees are falling,” this time of year, some of them enormous. My friend and fellow nature blogger Melissa of Out Walking the Dog sent me a photo the other day of a very large face-covering leaf I thought might be American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). The very next day I was walking (mile 30 of 1000) near the corner of 6th and 6th and found some similar giants underfoot my size 9s. Platanus occidentalisPlatanus occidentalisPlatanus occidentalisNice coincidence. For American Sycamores, though native to the region, are rare indeed on the sidewalks here in NYC, and aren’t even all that common in the parks (extraordinary tree-mapper Ken Chaya found 22 in Central Park, compared to 1,138 London Planes there). They are not on the current list of approved, or even quarantined, city species).

This is a shame, since the Buttonwood, as it’s also known, is quite intimately tied to city history: the stock exchange was founded by 24 brokers meeting under a Buttonwood on Wall St. in 1792, their founding document known to plutocrats and their toadies ever since as the Buttonwood Agreement. In the confusing non-binomial world, this species is also just known as the Sycamore, as well as American Planetree and Buttonball. It’s one of the largest Eastern hardwood species (the range sweeps from the coast to across the Mississippi, with the rich bottomlands of that river and the Ohio being their great fastnesses) and has the largest trunk diameter (there was a record 15 footer). They have a lifespan of 500-600 years, if they’re lucky; but the wood has long been used for purposes from dugouts canoes (Petrides mentions a reputed 65′ long one supposedly weighing 9000 lbs.), barrels, butcher blocks, furniture, etc. Like all our trees, it is host and habitat to many creatures who use it for food and shelter: deer, muskrat, raccoon, wood duck, opossum, swifts, to name just some of the vertebrates who hang with the Sycamores. Platanus occidentalisBut was this 6th/6th tree a Sycamore? It had ample seed balls, one to a stalk (check), and the characteristic dark, scaly lower trunk of a mature specimen (check). Platanus occidentalisThe v. similar London Planetree (Platanus ‘x acerfiolia’) keeps its smooth, pale, peeling mottled trunk from top to bottom as it ages. The London Plane, usually with two (or more) seed balls on the same stalk, is of course a common street tree, both here and Europe, although it is now no longer recommended for NYC because of the threat of the Asian Longhorn Beetle. (Though I have seen some recent street plantings of the “Bloodgood” variety.)

I have a surplus of field guides to trees: Barnard; Little; National Audubon; Petrides; Plotnik; Sibley. (Could be a law firm.) Not one has an example of leaves as above, with the deep lobe at the leaf base. Indeed, according to those books, these leaves look more London Plane-ish, again except for that deep lobe, and the size. Leaves are a bit like snowflakes, no two exactly alike; each individual tree, with thousands upon thousand of leaves, showing variation within the patterns. The leaves at the bottom of a tree can be bigger than those at the top, since they have more shade to work with while trying to capture the sun. A healthy, vigorously-growing twig can have larger leaves than a weak or sickly one. And so on. Every tree is unique. And everyone has its own story. (We hardly live long enough to tell these stories; Tolkien’s very slow-to-roil Ents were on to something.) Still, I’m fairly confident as an amateur tree hugger that I solved Melissa’s leaf mystery (her tree is also scaly barked at the base and the seed balls hang like Goring’s in the patriotic ditty), but shout out if you disagree.


Pyrus calleryanaQuercusQuercusGinkgoLiquidambar styraciflua


Liquidambar formosanaI did a double-take over these. They are similar to the pods of the American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua):Liquidambar styracifluabut smaller and with much longer points; these are evidently persistent styles. (The pods look rather Goth after they have opened up and dried out.) Also, the leaves are three-lobed: Liquidambar formosanaOur Sweetgum has five to seven lobes:Liquidamber styracifluaSo at first I thought it might be a varietal; there is one that produces no fruit, for people who don’t really like to have natural — that is, messy — things in their gardens.

Now, Green-Wood has an impressive range of trees, many fine specimens, but they aren’t necessarily local or even native to North America. Bingo! This is Liquidambar formosana, the Chinese or Formosan Sweetgum. Liquidambar formosanaWikipedia says there are five species in the Liquidambar genus, but their fifth example is that fruitless version of L.styraciflua. The genus name, by the way, looking so unclassical, refers to the sweet sap, the liquid amber, of the trees; in the U.S., at least, this was once used as a chewing gum.

A trio of pods sitting on the table soon resulted in a flurry of little seeds.


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