In a New York Times article, Gabriel Popkin claims that most of us walk around “tree blind” and know little to nothing about the green giants who tower over us. He also argues that knowing about native trees used to be a crucial survival skill. In today’s day and age, most of us see trees as only for their aesthetic value. Having led tree walks myself, I would support Popkin’s claim that knowing at least a few local trees is majorly beneficial for everyday living and for interfacing with the environment. Knowing which plants will offer a tasty treat from those who will give you an awful rash is quite a useful skill, even when navigating local parks.
Exploring Ohio trees is fun! Ohio hosts a large diversity of tree species, both angiosperms and gymnosperms. Focusing on angiosperms, I documented 8 species of trees endemic to central Ohio. The area surveyed was just West of Ohio State Univeristy’s campus, near the Olentangy River.
The pawpaw is a celebrated native tree, also known as the “poor man’s banana”. It produces fleshy fruits of a custard-like consistency that are used at the annual Pawpaw Festival in Ohio (which I hope to be attending this year :))[link]. I found this specimen on the fringe of a mesic forest ecosystem, near a mowed area. Because of their distinctive leaves with entire margins and tendencies to form colonies, this is an easily recognizable Ohio tree. The leaves are simple and alternate. The buds of the pawpaw are “silky-pubescent dark brown”, another easily-distinguishable feature (Braun, 1961).
Another tree I found quite near the pawpaw was a northern catalpa, also in the fringe area of a mesic forest ecosystem. Also known as the “cigar-tree” its long bean-like seed pods resembling cigars hang from its branches. It has quite large simple leaves with entire margins that are arranged in a quite unusual whorled pattern. Catalpa is known to host the defoliating caterpillars of the catalpa sphynx moth (Braun, 1961).
This tree was found near a roadside, completely surrounded by invasive honeysuckle in a fragmented dry-mesic forest ecosystem. In the elm family, hackberries are one of the two Celtis species native to Ohio. It is easily recognizable due to its uneven leaf base in combination with its berry-like fruits it produces (which are edible but do not taste very pleasant. Its leaves have a serrated margin and are alternately arranged, generally drooping downward along the branch but all facing upward (Braun, 1961).
One of my favorite native Ohio trees, yellowwood exhibits an odd pinnately compound leaf arrangement with its leaflets alternately arranged along the petiole. This specimen was found in a mixed mesophytic forest ecosystem around a group of similarly sized trees. Its common name was likely derived from the color of its wood, yellow of course, which can be made into a yellow dye (Braun, 1961).
This specimen was found near the hackberry, in a fragmented dry-mesic forest ecosystem. The serrate leaves of this species are highly variable, featuring major lobing in some and none in others (as shown above). Its leaves are simple and alternately arranged. Mulberry fruits, mulberries, are edible for humans and also an important part of the diets of many types of wildlife (Braun, 1961).
This water-loving species was found along a 2-acre pond, growing happily with many of its roots submerged in the water. The species name deltoides refers to its three-angled, triangular shaped leaves, which makes it easy to remember. Its leaves are simple, dentate, flat-based, and alternately arranged. This tree produces the cotton-like seeds coated in fluff that you would likely find covering your car in early Summer. Although not particularly valued for its timber, this species is very fast growing and found in many riparian and wetland areas (Braun, 1961).
This tree was found in a very fragmented area, filled to the brim with invasive honeysuckle. Although hard to see the bark of this specimen because it is covered in ivy, this tree exhibits lobed, simple leaves alternately arranged. The leaves feature one larger lobe toward the tip with smaller lobes protruding throughout the whole margin of the leaf. The leaves of this tree are also variable in shape, with some looking quite similar to those of Quercus alba. The species name of this tree macrocarpa signifies its fruits (shaggy-topped acorns) the be the largest- in fact, the largest fruit among all oak species. This tree is also the state tree if Illinois (Braun, 1961).
Sassafras is another one of my favorite native Ohio trees. It has a “scratch and sniff” quality with its crushed leaves/twigs having a distinct smell, quite like that of root beer. In fact, sassafras root extract was a key ingredient in root beer before it was recently declared a carcinogen (yikes!). Its leaves are simple, alternately arranged with entire margins. The leaves of sassafras are also quite variable, but in surprisingly predictable ways, generally one of three shapes. Some are three lobed, some one lobed, and some two lobed resembling a mitten shape. This tree was found in a dry-mesic forest ecosystem as an understory tree (Braun, 1961).
Reflecting on Popkin’s article, I further see the value of looking at and noticing trees in my surroundings. Usually only focusing on scientific aspects of trees, It was enjoyable to look into the history of each tree species, and knowing historical uses for these shared resources.
Braun, E. L. (1961). The woody plants of Ohio: Trees, shrubs and woody climbers, native, naturalized, and escaped.
Cure yourself of Tree Blindness. (2017, August 26). New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/26/opinion/sunday/cure-yourself-of-tree-blindness.html