Tree ID Practice

I recently got something in the mail that I am very excited about.

It’s beautiful.  Usually I get frustrated quickly with plant field guides; they’re often illustrated with photos that don’t show key features (for example, wildflower books with photos of the flowers but not the leaves, which drive me up the wall) and full of botanical jargon that I find it difficult to wade through despite some college background in botany.  Not so with this lovely volume.  Sibley has painted beautiful plates illustrating leaves, bark, twigs and bud scars, overall shape, etc. etc. etc., plus there are clear range maps and useful descriptions of what habitat to look in.  I love this book.

Yesterday afternoon I decided to take it out for a spin, so I carried it with me to a meadow that had several of what I thought were ash trees on its margins, thinking I could use my new book to identify them to species.  Now, let me be clear before I go any further: this is yet another post that is going to make me look like a complete dunce when it comes to identifying anything, but in my defense the whole reason I bought this book is that I know that trees (like insects) are a weak area for me and I want to improve my skills.  So yeah, I’d been calling these ash trees, because they have pinnately compound leaves and bark furrowed in diamond-ish pattern.

But wait.  The book says that ash leaves typically have five to nine leaflets; I count at least fourteen on that leaf.  And the bud scars…

…With that funny notched shape, they don’t really match the description and illustration for ash twigs.  Oh, wait, the book also says ash trees have opposite leaves; I remember the mnemonic now, MAD dog, maple-ash-dogwood.

Aaaaaaarrrrggghhhhh.  These are clearly alternate.

Finally I had no choice but to leave the ash chapter behind and started flipping through the book in search of another tree found in my area with pinnately compound leaves.  I eventually got to the page for black walnuts, which are described as having notched bud scars, 15-23 leaflets, and – ta-da! – often growing at the edges of fields.

Conclusion: not ash trees at all, but walnut trees!  At least I’ve proved to myself that I’m capable of successfully identifying a tree more or less from scratch with this guide.

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5 thoughts on “Tree ID Practice”

  1. Isn’t it exciting when a new identification book comes in the mail? I don’t have the Sibley Tree guide yet, but based on your review I’ll probably get one soon. I’m waiting for some new beetle ID books that are supposed to arrive Wednesday.

    If we already knew everything about a subject, there wouldn’t be any need to buy the book. When you get an ID guide that is immediately useful, you know you’ve made a wise investment. I’ve also had those moments where everything seems to change because what I always thought of as one species has suddenly turned out to be something else. It’s like walking into an entirely new landscape.

  2. I agree with you about the Sibley tree guide. I especially like that she illustrates leaves, twigs, bark, summer views, winter views….

    In fact, I think I’m about to snatch it up and go commune with the mystery tree in the back yard.

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