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Farm Park Tree Tour March 29, 2003



Before Leaves Have Appeared 

            About 20 people gathered at the Pavilions in the Park on Saturday, March 29th for the Tree Identification Walk – yes, before the leaves have appeared!  Identification was made by bark type, appearance of buds and branching pattern of branches, twigs and leaves (directly across from each other or opposed in a zig zag pattern.  Sometimes a definite ID could not be made.  The walk was organized by Mary Beyer, a Board member of the Farm Park Preservation Society and was led by Kevin Crilley, Head Naturalist at Montgomery County Green Lane Park.  Kevin was chock full of interesting facts and the walk was over too soon!

            We looked at trees (classified as flood plain trees) while walking on the nature path along Stony Creek and finished with admiring some huge, very old trees in the pasture on the other side of the Pavilions – the same grove of trees where the red tail hawks had a nest last breeding season.  We learned that the sycamore has two other names: buttonwood and American plain tree.  Take a look at the trees on Buttonwood Street in Norristown.  The sycamore’s bark is very distinctive and has been described as mottled and camouflaged-colored.  This tree is a favorite of “paint by number” paint sets.  We saw the sweet cherry tree with bark characterized by bands of horizontal stripes.  This tree produces large sweet edible cherries that the birds always get first.  Another cherry tree present in the Park is the black cherry with pea size cherries (all pit).  This tree has plate-like bark and prefers a colder climate such as that in Potter County and so does not grow so large in our area.

     We learned a phrase (“mad horse”) to help us remember which trees have buds and branches in pairs (in contrast to the zig zag positioning).  This phrase stands for maple, ash, dogwood and horse chestnut.  Maple trees in the Park that we observed were the box elder and the red or silver maple, with distinctive red buds.  We couldn’t distinguish between these two maples unless we could see the leaves or seed packets.  Both the red and silver maples have softwood.  Another type of maple, the sugar maple, has hard wood.  We saw a slippery elm on the bank of the creek.  The bark of this elm has smooth furrows and a mucilaginous inner bark.  If you chew the inner bark, your mouth will feel slippery, hence the name.  We noticed the appealing vase shape of the elm. Another elm, the American elm, has pretty well died out due to Dutch elm disease.  Also present on the banks of the creek were apple trees, which probably grew from seeds deposited by birds that had eaten apple seeds at another location.

            We saw many specimens of white ash that is very common in southeastern PA.  Deep diamond-shaped furrows characterize the bark of this tree.  The wood is lightweight but strong, and most baseball bats are fashioned from it.  A tree whose deeply furrowed bark is similar to the white ash is the black walnut.  The wood of this tree is deep chocolate brown.  The black walnut has twigs with a unique pitted chamber within, pussy willow like buds and “monkey face” leaf scars.  The very hard nuts cannot be cracked open with a nutcracker; a hammer is required!  The nuts are contained in a casing (husk) that will stain clothes and skin.  I can personally attest to the durability of this stain on skin – it gets into every little crack in the skin of your hands and doesn’t come off for over a week!  The pioneers made brown dye from the nut husks.  The roots of the black walnut, like those of the golden rod plant, secret a toxin that will kill many types of plants growing in the vicinity.  However some plants, including violets, are not affected by this toxin.  Black walnut wood is used to make furniture and gun stocks.

            The shagbark hickory (hickory trees belong to the walnut family) has very shaggy bark that you will not fail to identify.  It is an attractive tree and produces lots of big nuts.  It has 5, 7 or 9 leaflets which we could observe because a few branches still retained some brown leaves which is unusual for this type tree.  It’s wood used to be used for making bats (too heavy for modern baseball), and is still used for making tool handles, to smoke meats, and to make charcoal.  Other hickory trees found in the park are the bittersweet hickory with distinctive yellow buds and the mockery nut hickory with hairy leaf stems and nuts that are a mockery of the shagbark’s nuts – all husk, little meat.

            In the meadow near the Pavilions are some wonderful huge specimens of white oak.  These slow growing “witness trees” live for up to 600 years and are very important to wildlife.  Their acorns feed many types of animals of which the squirrel is only one.  They are prone to insect problems and the presence of insects on the trees attracts birds.  We use their wood to make hardwood floors.  The younger trees have a whitish ashy bark, but these older ones are darker.  We also saw mulberry trees in the meadow.  The bark of the mulberry has smooth furrows.  The birds go crazy over their berries!

            While we were walking, Kevin also pointed out several problematic trees and plants.  Some of these were non-native invasive species such as the tree of heaven with snake skin-like bark.  This tree is from Asia and can take over wide areas of land driving out the native trees.  We found some of these trees along the creek.  Also happily growing along the nature path were very attractive plants with rounded green leaves and small yellow flowers – the lesser calendine from Europe.  Even though they are very pretty, these plants are invasive and will drive out all our native wildflowers.  Two other invasive plants that originated in Asia and that are abundant in the Park are the multifloral rose with clusters of small white flowers and nasty thorns and the fragrant Japanese honeysuckle.  Two native vines that can be a problem to trees are the grape vine and poison ivy.  Both can overtake a tree and kill it.  The grape vine becomes very large and has recognizable bark.  Poison ivy in the winter is that hairy vine winding its way up a tree.  Poison ivy will cause skin rashes in the 70% of people who are allergic to it even in the winter so beware!  What’s good about poison ivy and the grape vine?  Birds love their fruit!  If you look at some of the bluebird houses in the park, you will see poison ivy near them. We leave it there because the berries become an important food source for the bluebirds that remain in the park during the winter.

            This Tree Identification Walk - without the presence of leaves to help - was very informative and lots of fun.  Many thanks to Kevin Crilley for his entertaining teaching and to Mary Beyer for organizing and publicizing it!  The next tree walk is scheduled for June 14 - when we will have leaves to help us in the identification!


                                                                Diana L. Cassel

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