The end of February was a great time to practice winter tree identification, and to enjoy a new Highland Brewing Company seasonal pint with friends. As part of our “For Love of Beer & Mountains” partnership with Highlands Brewing Company, we hosted an informative & engaging presentation at the Tasting Room on Thursday, February 21, followed that weekend by an on-the-ground field opportunity with SAHC Field Ecologist Chris Coxen. The presentation was short & sweet – an informative beginner’s guide to success in knowing more about the trees you may see in our area, given in six steps.
Step 1: Have a “good” field guide with you such as the National Audubon Society or Peterson Field guide.
Step 2: Try to identify your forest community type by narrowing down the possibilities of which trees grow where. For example, learning which trees grow at a particular elevation, observing whether the slope is north or south facing, or notice what the trees are near such as water, a hollow, or cove. The location of the tree relative to its surroundings is good way to determine which type of tree might grow there.
Step 3: Observe the form of the tree–are the branches opposite or alternating? Is the tree super straight like a tulip poplar? Is it bent like a sourwood?
Step 4: Hark, the bark! Is the bark cobbled like sourwood or black gum? Are there grooves that look like ski trails (might be a red oak)?
Step 5: Checkout the leaves and fruit around the tree. Chris pointed out that this technique can back your initial inclination but is not always reliable because the leaves/fruit could fall far from the tree and because some leaves persist better than others.
Step 6: Examine the twig. When this technique is combined with step 2 and 4, the observer has the best chance of identifying the given tree.
The following Sunday, a full group headed out on a guided hike at Cataloochee Ranch, to try out newly learned techniques. SAHC Field Ecologist, Chris Coxen, was on fire, “ID-ing” trees left and right on the Devils Britches Trail at Cataloochee Ranch. It was a clear & beautiful day, filled with learning, mountains. The hike started with a discussion about how conservation easements work and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy’s long history with Cataloochee Ranch. This talk was especially fitting, since we placed our first ever conservation easement here at the Ranch – on Hemphill Bald in 1993.
Once reaching the edge of the forest, our schooling started by looking at forest community types.
“One of the best ways to identify trees without their leaves is to look for common forest communities,” said Chris.
For example, dominant canopy species in Northern Hardwood Forest might include yellow birch, sugar maple, American beech, red maple, sweet birch, and yellow buckeye. Another common forest community type in western North Carolina is the Chestnut Oak Forest which includes trees like the northern red oak, chestnut oak, and scarlet oak. The question is how do you discern a chestnut oak from an American beech when the trees have no leaves?
Chris reviewed his Six Step tips for success with Tree ID, and for the next two hours, hikers had the opportunity to try out all six of the steps. The group quickly discovered that identifying the naked tree in the middle of winter can be a difficult task. After a pop-quiz from the Field Ecologist at the end of the hike, it was clear that the group had improved a lot.