Earlier this winter, naturalist Luke Cannon joined SAHC hikers to explore the beautiful Rough Creek Watershed in Canton, NC. In 2003, a conservation easement was placed on the watershed in a joint effort by SAHC and the State of North Carolina to protect 870 acres of near-pristine ecosystems and close to seven miles of streams containing water of outstanding quality. This large tract of land encompasses 12 distinct plant communities, and we hiked primarily through the predominating Rich and Acidic Cove Forests and Montane-Oak Hickory Forest.
Our goal that day was to use the winter season to our advantage to learn some new skills in identifying deciduous trees in winter, when their biggest clues—the leaves—are missing. We had overwhelming interest in this educational outing with Luke, who is not only extremely knowledgeable, but an excellent storyteller. He also did a wonderful job fostering involvement and interaction amongst members of the group.
Following the impressive 8+ inches of snow we had received the weekend before, everyone seemed thrilled to get outside on a warm, sunny day. However, where the sun hadn’t easily reached, there was still ample evidence of the winter deluge the week before. As we began hiking upwards into the watershed, we could hear Rough Creek rushing in between snow-covered banks along our right-hand side, higher than usual from snowmelt.
One of the first trees we saw was an apple tree, reminiscent of the history of the property where early Appalachian settlers established homesteads and a school in the late 1800s. Luke explained how the specific tree composition of the area is reflective of a history of being cleared by these settlers. An abundance of black locust in particular, an early successional tree, illuminates the area’s past, while the fact that oaks and other trees have begun to grow up and dominate the canopy gives some indication of the length of time that has elapsed since the land was cleared.
As we walked, we learned some identifying features of the trees we passed: the “llama-faced” leaf scars of the black walnut, the deeply furrowed bark of the black locust, and the shiny, shedding pieces of yellow birch bark. But in addition to all of this “textbook knowledge,” one of the most inspirational and helpful things Luke taught the group was that names and scientific notations don’t matter for personal tree identification. Anyone can learn to identify trees when they start to notice a recurring feature, and you can call it whatever you want. For example, lots of kids he has worked with start to recognize the “Watermelon Tree” popping up over and over—and that is in itself a form of identification. Once you’ve learned to recognize certain trees, you can begin to learn their common names if you are interested (the watermelon tree is really the striped maple), or even their Latin names if you are so inclined (in this case, Acer pensylvanicum).
After exploring and examining trees most of the day, we had a chance to walk along the western edge of the property for a spectacular view out towards the Smokies before descending the trail back home. Our hikers and staff who attended had such an amazing time, and we are so thankful to Luke Cannon for sharing his expertise and time with us!