Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Survival Resources 5: Winter Tree ID

In late November, a friend and I went on an expedition to learn some foraging and other outdoor skills. She asked me how well I could identify trees. I said that was easy; I could tell a maple from an oak and...

Then I realized how I could tell the two trees apart was by their leaves--but at this point in the season, the trees didn't have any leaves. That's when she began to teach me winter tree identification.

The first thing she taught me was 'MAD Cap Horse'--this is a mnemonic to help remember which trees and shrubs have opposite leaves and branches: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Caprifoliaceae, and Horse chestnuts. (Caprifoliaceae is a group of plants that include honeysuckle and elderberries.)

After that we began looking at buds which are pretty interesting unto themselves. Beech buds are long and pointed, maple buds often look like little three fingered mitts, oaks have clusters that are really complex looking, dogwood have buds that look like tiny sculptures of onions, and magnolia have soft, fuzzy buds.

I am just beginning learning this process, but I think it will prove useful in many ways--including how to identify tree that have an edible inner bark. (See my last post on Foraging.) But I also think this is part of recovering our basic ecological literacy.

A useful resource for learning winter skills (at least in Central and Eastern US and Canada) is the Winter Finders Set from Nature Study Guild Publishers. This includes a Winter Tree Finder, a Winter Weed Finder, and a Track Finder--all of which have a useful format to help you identify what you are looking at. (Each of these little booklets can be purchased separately.)

Quote of the Day: "Have you explored the miracle of buds? Observing eyes quickly find them, large and small, on bushes and trees in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. To identify buds it is important to notice their arrangement on the twig. ...
"A few inches from the tip of your twig you an discover several lines or rings close together. These growth rings were left when the bud scales of last year's terminal bud fell off. They show last year's growth or how much the twig grew in one year. Now look for the next ring further down. That marked the end of the twig two years ago. Starting at the tip of the twig, count the growth rings to get the age of the twig." - Marjorie Smith


Austan said...

Thank you! After years of book-studying edible (and healing)herbs and plants I'm still hopeless at identifying them in the wild. Photos and illustrations just don't translate to the living thing to me. This a terrible learning gap in me, and probably comes from years of city living where I only saw elms, pines and eventually gingko trees. Bark and wood are a mystery to me, but one I'm eager to solve.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks for your comment.

Believe me, I am still a beginner at all this and it's a steep learning curve, but I am finding persistence helps. I know what you mean about photos and illustrations. It sometimes helps if you go out with someone who knows already knows this stuff and can show you a few points--otherwise we just get to struggle on our own.