Going Beyond Leaves

I rarely actually hug them, but I do love trees.  I enjoy walking along wooded paths and lounging in a hammock suspended between two towering trunks.  Listening to the wind move through leaves overhead and feeling the cool of the shade beneath are both activities that bring a smile to my face.  

I like knowing trees: knowing their characteristics, their preferences, and, especially as I walk through the woods of north Alabama, what they are.  What kind of tree is that?  I prefer to know.  Trees are all different, and I like to call them by name. 

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, but for the most part, I’m just a leaf guy.  If I can see the leaves, I can usually identify the tree, or at least its family.  The oaks, the maples, the beeches, pines, and hickories: I know a lot of them…if I can see their leaves.

Lately though, I’ve been working to learn to identify trees by other properties, specifically their buds, twigs, and bark (insert dogwood joke here).  

This is hard for me.  It’s hard because I have to slow down and observe closely, and that can be challenging unless I’m in the mood for it.  

As is so often the answer to just about everything, I’ve gotten a book on the subject and I’m learning.  I’m working with Winter Tree Finder, by May Theilgaard Watts and Tom Watts.  It’s a pretty cool little book (it really is just a bit more than a pamphlet) and I’m learning a lot from it.  

Recently, I went out to a tree near the school I was working at, book in hand.  I kind of had an idea what the tree was, and thought it would be a good first test of my ability to follow the author’s guidance.  The book follows an if/then format (okay, it’s actually called a dichotomous key) to guide the reader through the steps necessary to identify a particular subject.

I started with alternating leaf scars, thin twigs, and small terminal buds (those at the end of the twig).  That helped me recognize it as an oak. Observing the shape and configuration took me to the point where I was looking for an acorn cap on the ground, and the cap’s characteristics told me I was looking at a red oak.  I couldn’t be positive, but I think it worked!

Am I going to master this new skill anytime soon?  Well, probably not, but I’m going to keep plugging away at it.  Somewhere there’s a cliche about good things taking time, so if you know it, go ahead and say it to yourself now.  I am, and I think that’s okay. 

28 thoughts on “Going Beyond Leaves”

    1. They really are great little books, aren’t they? I use that book as well in the summertime, but I’m having fun with the winter book as well. I was out hiking with a group of teachers today (that slice comes in a few days) and you were one of the “distant kindred spirits” whom I wished were there!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Your post reminds me of my father-in-law, a science professor who can recognize the regional trees by either the leaves or the bark – which, in an area that knows winter well, is a handy trick. I think the thing that roped me in, though, was your musings on trees and their characteristics. I’m not a literal tree-hugger either, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling a deep connection to them, or the wisdom they have ways of imparting. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lainie. Trees, like all living things, have something about them that inspires the connection you mentioned. There is so much to nature–a wisdom–that never ceases to amaze me. I’m aspiring to the abilities of your father-in-law, one step at a time!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love getting glimpses into other people’s passions that I know nothing about. How interesting and probably peaceful to be with nature and having something so calming to focus on. Unless you are frustrated that you can’t identify the tree by the bark. 🙂

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  3. Yes – good things – worthwhile things – take time! While I am no tree expert, I do find the subtle difference (like how oak tree hold onto their leaves so long) to be an amazing “slice” of nature. Good luck with this adventure

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anita, I agree wholeheartedly! I have to chuckle at your mention of the oak leaves hanging onto their leaves so long. That’s an interest of mine, and I posted a poem about it a bit over a month ago. Marcescence, that trait (and my poem) is called. Thank you for reading, and for your comments!


  4. I love to hear that you are appreciating and getting to know the diffrent kinds of trees! Here in Connecticut too many are being taken down too easily because of hurricaines and storms and people wanting their power uninterrupted. I say take all the time you need to understand and learn about them. But most importantly, as you did here, pass on your gratitude and wisdom of the trees. Such calm in nature!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kara, someday I hope to explore the forests of New England and the northeastern United States. Trees really are worth learning about–there’s more to them than we give them credit for!


  5. When I work with the local Land Trust in 2019 as their Outreach and Education Program Manager, I learned a lot on my very first outing about two weeks into the job from our Conservation Director. We snowshoed through the woods and she was so informative about the trees! This was in late February, so there were no leaves to help with identification – just bark and twigs and such. It was so helpful and she was so informative that I can now very proudly get a few species identified (hickory, hackberry, and more) that I could not before. Enjoy your new learning experience! Sounds great!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lisa, it’s really cool to hear you’re pursing this knowledge as well. The pines are so cool, but outside of the loblolly here in Alabama, I’m still a rank beginner. Enjoy the learning process!


  6. I love this idea of learning this skill with a guide book. I don’t know that I would have the patience for it though. Good luck in sharpening your skills.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember in 8th grade we had a leaf project where we had to identify a certain number of trees. Boy, that book would have come in handy, especially since we didn’t have apps and Google back then! Then an Eagle Scout thought a great project would be to have signs made that identified all the trees in the park. Maybe that was when the teachers stopped assigning that project! 🙂 Were you the one who wrote about the persimmon tree bark?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Leigh Anne, I remember learning leaves before the internet, too! It was a bit of a challenge, to say the least. Those signs would have come in handy. 🙂

      I believe I did write about persimmon bark, yes. It’s quite a tree, and I’m happy to say I saw one just today!


  8. Tim, I have a fascination with trees as well. Have you read Overstory? The protagonist is a tree. I’m half-way in and the writing is brilliant. The author, a Pulitzer prize winner, I believe has a lovely podcast about it and his love of trees. I’ll search for it for you. . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shari, thank you! I’m a firm believer that there is so much about trees (and other plants) that we just don’t know. They fascinate me with their abilities, and I’m looking forward to checking out Overstory.


  9. Tim your slice has sparked my interest in trees and I will be starting my research here in this tropical place. My interest in nature since last year has been heightened and I am attached to my sister’s garden . Thanks for sharing the different ways you identify trees.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Juliette, I’m glad to hear about your new-found interest! If I may, I’d like to recommend The Songs of Trees by David George Haskell. It’s a fantastic introduction to the deeper science of trees–fascinating!


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