Category Archives: Trees

Sap Freezing

Frozen sap of red oak, 10 Feb 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

The weather this month has been up and down like a yo-yo: A low of 6oF on February 2, highs in the 50s and 60s for six days, then a low of 14oF on February 9. During those warm days the sap started running in the trees. I wouldn’t have noticed except …

On February 10 during a walk in Schenley Park I found flash-frozen sap on the damaged trees. At top, a fallen red oak made a red-orange waterfall. Below, a small amount of sap in a fungi-encrusted tree dripped like orange ribbons.

Sap runs and freezes inside healthy trees, too. We just can’t see it.

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Shapes of Trees: Tuliptree

Tuliptree in winter, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The Shapes of Trees continues today with the tuliptree or yellow-poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera.

Tuliptrees are the tallest eastern hardwood, 70 to 190 feet tall at maturity.  They’re characterized by straight branch-less trunks for most of their height because they jettison their lower branches as they grow.  The crowns have arching branches and up-swept twigs(*). On mature trees some branches are bent or zigzag, but they are never as gnarly as black locusts. 

The photos below show their typical shape as seen from the side and below.  Notice that the trunk is straight and limbless.

Tuliptrees in winter (photos from Bugwood.org: 1609187 by John Ruter, Univ. GA, UGA1118275 by Brian Lockhart, USDA Forest Service)

Younger trees have tapered tops like candle flames.

Young tuliptree with characteristic candle flame shape (photo by Kate St. John)

In early winter tuliptrees are still dotted with clustered samaras that look like pale wooden flowers, but you have to use binoculars to see them. 

If you’re lucky to find a twig at eye level you can easily identify the tree by its large smooth end bud, shaped like a duck’s bill.

Tuliptree twig with duckbill bud (photo by Kate St. John)

But the mature trees have no low hanging twigs so you’ll have to use other clues.

Learn how to identify tuliptrees in winter and see photos of the bark, buds and samaras in this vintage article: Winter Trees: Tuliptree.

(*) Quoted from The Sibley Guide to Trees, page 100.

(first photo and bud photo by Kate St. John. Tuliptrees in winter from Bugwood.org: 1609187 by John Ruter, Univ. GA, UGA1118275 by Brian Lockhart, USDA Forest Service. Click on these links to see the originals)

Tiny Opals

Hackberry fruits (photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University, bugwood.org)

This month I read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and learned that she made an amazing discovery in 1998 during research for her doctoral dissertation:  Inside common hackberry fruit is a small hard pit with a lattice made of opal.

Hackberry fruits, pictured at top, are drupes similar to cherries and peaches with fleshy fruit surrounding a central pit.  The fruit is thin and the pits are large so we rarely eat hackberries but birds love them.

The pits in cherries and peaches are made of wood (or something like it) but hackberry pits are made of stone: calcium carbonate inside a lattice framework. When Hope Jahren used Xray diffraction on the crushed lattice material its composition came up “opal.” 

When I found this out I searched for the pits under hackberry trees in Schenley Park. At this time of year the fleshy purple fruit is gone, only the white pits remain.  Here’s what I found, one whole, one opened. The exterior is a network of tiny raised lines. 

Opal is in these hackberry pits (photo by Kate St. John)

The pits don’t look like opal and probably never will.  You’d have to use acid to remove the calcium carbonate (the white stuff of seashells) and then examine the remaining latticework under a microscope.  There’s a tiny bit of opal in there.

And so I wonder: How does a tree put opal in its drupes?  I don’t know, but here are the raw materials:

[The rock] Opal is formed from a solution of silicon dioxide and water. As water runs down through the earth, it picks up silica from sandstone, and carries this silica-rich solution into cracks and voids, caused by natural faults or decomposing fossils. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind a silica deposit. This cycle repeats over very long periods of time, and eventually opal is formed. 

From Opals Down Under

Trees take up water that contains dissolved minerals including the building blocks of opal.

Miraculously, the hackberry tree pulls out what it needs and makes an opal latticework inside its drupes.

Learn how to identify hackberry trees in winter at Winter Trees; Hackberry.  Then search the leaf litter for tiny opals.

For further reading see : Hackberry: A Gem of a Weed

(photo credits: hackberry fruits by Paul Wray, Iowa State University, bugwood.org, hackberry pits by Kate St. John)

The Trees Are Still Standing

Camp Fire damage in a Paradise, California, neighborhood, Nov. 17, 2018 (photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman, California Army National Guard)

In all the smoke-filled photos of the Camp Fire devastation in Paradise, California one thing stands out to me:  The buildings are gone but the trees are still standing.

The town of Paradise, California (population 26,000) was destroyed on 8 November 2018 by the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.  As soon as it ignited at 6:30am, the fire raced westward on 50-70 mph winds. By 8am it reached the Paradise Town Limit six miles away. Seven towns were forced to evacuate but not everyone made it out. As of 26 November, 88 are confirmed dead, 203 are still missing and tens of thousands are left homeless.

But the trees survived.  You can see them in all the photos and videos including these taken on 17 Nov by the California National Guard as they searched the rubble and marked the damage. 

Soldiers from the California Army National Guard’s 649th Engineer Company, Chico, conduct search and debris clearing operations, Nov. 17, 2018, in Paradise, CA (photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

Because the trees are still standing, the damage assessment has to be done by hand. This Washington Post article shows how the satellites can’t see through standing trees. 

So why are the trees OK in this incinerated landscape? I’m sure it has to do with moisture.

U.S. Army Sgt. Rodrigo Estrada of the California Army National Guard’s 649th Engineer Company, Chico, leads a team conducting search and debris clearing operations, Nov. 17, 2018, in Paradise, CA (photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

Living trees contain more moisture than the dry wood in buildings. When blowing embers hit houses, they catch fire immediately. The trees’ moisture resisted. The fire moved on.

This video by Mike West shows how quickly fire consumes dry wood compared to living trees.

The scene is spooky now. Nearly everything is gone but the trees are still standing.


Soldiers from the California Army National Guard’s 649th Engineer Company, Chico, conduct search and debris clearing operations, Nov. 17, 2018, in Paradise, CA (photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

p.s.  Some trees are damaged and will fall sooner or later.  Here’s an NPR story about trees in the fire zone.

p.p.s. See the damage extent on Cal-Fire’s Camp Fire Structure Status map.  See satellite images here in the Washington Post

(photos by Chico California National Guard, YouTube video by Mike West)

Snow On Leaves

Snow on leaves, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday it rained. Then it sleeted. Then it snowed in the wee hours of Friday morning, especially north of Pittsburgh.

In the old days most of the trees would be bare by now, but this year many still have leaves.

Ice and snow made the leaves heavy and some of the trees came down, hitting power lines as they fell.  By Friday morning KDKA reported that 65,000 households north and east of the city were without electricity.  No power, no heat, and for those with well water, no water.  It may take until Sunday evening to get all of the power restored..

The City is warmer than surrounding counties so Schenley Park had snow on the leaves, but no ice.

Snow on leaves, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s what my favorite hillside looked like yesterday. 50% of the trees still have leaves.

Only half of the trees are bare, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

The power failures wouldn’t have been so bad if most of the trees had been bare. 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Watch for Witch Hazel

Witch hazel flowers catch the light after the leaves are gone, November (photo by Kate St. John)

When the leaves are gone these lacy flowers stand out in the forest.

American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms from late October into December in eastern North America.  Its delicate yellow flowers smell like lemon.

Witch hazel flower, October in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Since witch hazel blooms when few insects are out how are the flowers pollinated?

In 1987 Bernd Heinrich found that owlet moths come out at night to sip the flowers and thereby pollinate them.

The moths survive cold weather by hiding under leaf litter during the day, then shivering to warm up and fly at night. Click here to learn more.

(photos by Kate St. John)

When Will Most Of The Trees Be Bare?

Leafless bur oak, Schenley Park, 4 Nov 2011 (photo by Kate St. John)

Every year I record the date when most of the trees are bare on my favorite hillside in Schenley Park — the hill at the end of the Greenfield Bridge.

In 2008 the leaves were gone by 2 November.  In 2012 Hurricane Sandy stripped them from the trees by 4 November.

Last year the changes happened much later. In 2017, the leaves were still green in late October and more than half were still on the trees on 27 November.  Here’s a 2017 slideshow of autumn trees on that hillside.

  • 26 October 2017: Lots of green at the end of October 2017.

This year is similar to last so I wonder … When will most of the trees be bare?  November 15?  20?  30? Later?

Let me know how the trees look where you live and vote for the date “When Most of the Trees Will Be Bare” by leaving a comment below.

HINT!  Two factors that affect leaf loss on this hillside:  (1) More than half of the trees are oaks; oaks drop their leaves later than maples.  (2) This city location is warmer than surrounding counties.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Stinky Fruit

Ginkgo tree with fruit, October in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s time to tiptoe on the sidewalk at Flagstaff Hill.  The female ginkgo trees are dropping their smelly fruit on Schenley Drive. 

Ginkgo fruit on the sidewalk at Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Ginkgo fruit smells like stinky feet or vomit but the nuts inside are edible.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn about ginkgos in this 2011 article: Stinkbomb Tree.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Fall Foliage: When?

Moraine State Park, 15 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Summer ended on Friday morning. Brrrr! Now that it’s cold, it’s time for colorful fall foliage, right?

Some reports say western Pennsylvania won’t have pretty leaves this fall, others say we will.  One thing is certain, though. The leaves stayed green longer than usual.

Twenty years ago our fall foliage reached its peak around October 15 but today — only one day before the 15th — the leaves have just begun to change.  We had the same situation last year as shown in my photo taken at Moraine State Park on 15 October 2017.

Delayed timing makes it hard to know when fall color will reach its peak but the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry (DCNR) is here to help.  Check out their Fall Foliage Guide complete with an interactive map and weekly reports.  The October 11-17, 2018 forecast map is shown below (yellow means “approaching best color”). Click here or on the caption to see the full report.

screenshot of Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Report, Oct 11-17 2018, by PA DCNR

Don’t worry if you haven’t gone “leaf peeping” yet in western Pennsylvania.  You still have time to see fall colors this month.

(photo by Kate St. John, Screenshot from the Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Report, October 11-18, 2018, PA DCNR; click on the caption to see the original)