Now that we’ve mastered the trees with opposite branching, it’s time to turn our attention to those whose branches alternate from left to right (more or less). There are many species of trees that fit this category, and many of them exist here in the Adirondacks. To write even a quick ID guide for all of them would take more space than we have here, so I’m only going to touch on those that are most commonly found.
So there you are, staring at your mystery tree. You’ve determined it’s not a conifer, and its branches sprout in an alternate fashion, one to the left, one to the right, etc. It is autumn, or perhaps winter, so leaves have fallen off the majority of the deciduous trees. Perhaps, however, your tree is still hanging on to its leaves. The leaves are tan in color and they have a crinkly, papery feel to them. If you look at the buds, they look like tiny cigars: long and pointy. In fact, if you poke the bud into your finger, it might even hurt, like you pricked your finger with a needle. If your specimen is a young tree, the bark is likely a smooth pale grey. Older specimens, while historically also a smooth pale grey, today look worn and tired. The bark seems to have slumped; it is cracked and may even be falling off, a victim of disease. Your tree is the American beech, once one of the grandest trees in our northern forests, and a staple in the diets of many animals, from turkey and bears to squirrels and deer. The big clue for beech is the leaves (I know, I wasn’t going to dwell on leaves, but there’s always the exception). Beech leaves persist throughout the winter, making this tree very easy to identify in the snowy woods.
Let’s say, instead, that your tree has bark that is peeling off sideways. Ah-ha! Birch, you say. Yes, but which birch? In youngish specimens, it is easy to tell white birch from yellow, but sometimes older specimens have darkened with age and suddenly it’s no longer so easy to tell them apart. White, or paper birch, typically has bright white bark, the underside of which is a pinkish color. When it peels, the strips are fairly wide, and thick. Yellow birch is more bronze in color, and its bark tends to peel off in thin papery ringlets. A really big clue that you can use to tell white birch from yellow is smell. If you can find a small twig hanging from a branch low enough to reach, scrape a short section with your fingernail and give it a sniff. Does it smell like wintergreen? If so, you have a yellow birch. And yes, black birch (aka: sweet birch) also produces this aroma, but it’s not as common around these parts as the yellow. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a black birch. As for grey birch, well, in the Adirondacks that’s strictly an ornamental tree, found in yards. It’s easily recognized by the black “moustaches” that decorate the bark where every branch sprouts from the trunk.
If you are lucky and have musclewood/ironwood/blue beech/American hornbeam, you will be able to recognize it in a heartbeat, for the trunk of this smallish tree resembles a forearm that is bulging with muscles. There’s nothing else like it.
American hop hornbeam is another one of our smallish trees. The fruits look like hops – layered, papery scales. The bark is also quite distinctive; it looks like many narrow rectangles stuck lengthwise to the side of the tree, some of which are peeling up from the bottom.
Believe it or not, we have quite a number of American elm trees around. Large, mature specimens, while not common, are easily identified by their classic “vase shape”. If you find a small one with leaves, you’ll note that they are asymmetrical in shape and feel like sandpaper. The bark, however, can come in two different varieties: smooth (not smooth like a beech, but more like it once had ridges that were then flattened), and furrowed (narrow ridges that weave in and out of each other, much like the white ash, but not corky in texture).
And then there’s my old friend the black cherry, the bane of my college dendrology days. I finally came to the conclusion that if I was facing a tree that I could not ID, it must be a black cherry, and this actually worked pretty well, but it’s a lousy way to identify something. Today I can give you a much easier, and more accurate, way to identify this tree: the bark looks like burnt cornflakes. You can’t miss it! Black cherry bark is probably one of the easiest to identify off all the trees. Even kids in first grade can easily learn this tree. Burnt cornflakes = black cherry. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
Learning to identify trees can be a lot of fun, but you don’t want to tackle them all at once. Start with something easy, like the conifers. Then work your way through those with opposite branching, and finally take on the alternates. Try to learn the distinctive characteristics of each. In some it might be the leaves, in others the bark, the buds, or even the fruits. Remember that seedlings and saplings often look a lot different from mature specimens. And location, location, location: you won’t find a sugar maple in a swamp, and likewise you won’t find a black spruce where the soil is rich and loamy.
Once you learn your trees, the forest becomes just that much more familiar. The next thing you know, you’ll be learning to identify the other plants that keep the trees company. And then you just might find yourself wondering “I wonder what this plant can be used for?” That’s when plant ID ascends to a whole new level and things become really interesting. So, give it a go…you never know where a little bit of knowledge might lead you.