Category Archives: Trees

Papery Husks

American hazelnuts, Schenley Park, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
American hazelnuts, Schenley Park, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

In late July, you may find nuts wrapped in papery green husks.

They’re American hazelnuts, Corylus americana, so closely related to the beaked hazel-nut Corylus cornuta that the two species can hybridize.  The nut wrappers tell them apart.

The husks on C. americana’s nuts are two leaf-like bracts with ragged tips. This photo by Paul Wray at forestryimages.org shows hairy leaf bracts and an unwrapped nut.

American hazel nut (photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University via Bugwood.org, Creative Commons license)
American hazel nut (photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University via Bugwood.org, Creative Commons license)

Beaked hazel-nut (C. cornuta) husks are so long and thin that they look like beaks, as seen in this photo from forestryimages.org.

Fruits of beaked hazelnut ((Caleb Slemmons, National Ecological Observatory Network, Bugwood.org, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License))
Fruits of beaked hazelnut (Caleb Slemmons, National Ecological Observatory Network, Bugwood.org, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License))

The nuts I found in Schenley Park don’t have long beaks but they aren’t quite the same as the C. americana photo above.

I wonder if they’re hybrids.

 

(two photos by Kate St. John. photo number 5556599 by Caleb Slemmons, National Ecological Observatory Network, at Bugwood.org)

Balsam Blue

Balsam cones, La Manche Trail, Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Balsam cones, La Manche Trail, Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Did you know that the immature cones on balsam firs are gray-blue?  I didn’t because …

I see balsam trees every year in Maine but I’m only there in September when the cones are ripe and brown and about to disintegrate to release their seeds.

Where I live in western Pennsylvania there are no balsam firs (range map below) but eastern hemlocks are common. Hemlocks have some traits that are similar to balsam firs, so …

Balsam fir range map (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Balsam fir range map (image from Wikimedia Commons)

… when I saw balsam firs (Abies balsamea) in Newfoundland I misidentified them at first.  🙁

The balsam’s lower/newer twigs have flat needles on flat-looking branches.  Eastern hemlocks do, too, so I called this a hemlock.  (wrong!)

Balsam fir, symmetrical flat lower branch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Balsam fir, symmetrical flat lower branch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Balsam needles have two white stripes on the underside.  So do eastern hemlocks so I said “hemlock” again. (wrong!)

However, the needles curled on the higher branches.  Hemlock needles never do that.

Morning dew on balsam fir needles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Morning dew on balsam fir needles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, the cones are the easiest way to identify balsam firs. The cones stand straight up and in summer they’re balsam blue.

 

p.s. Here’s a website that describes how to identify pines, spruces, and firs: Conifer Confusion: An Identification Guide for Pine, Spruce and Fir Trees.  I wish it said more about hemlocks!

(balsam cone photo by Kate St. John. All other photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Tamarack Rose

Tamarack cone in Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tamarack cone in Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

This month in Newfoundland I found a rose on the tamarack.

Tamaracks (Larix laricina) are North American larches whose name means “wood is good for fence posts” in Algonquin.

The “roses” are their immature cones. In summer the needles are green and the cones are red.

Tamarack branch with cones, Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tamarack branch with cones, Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

In autumn the needles turn yellow and fall off the tree.

Tamarack in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Tamarack in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And the cones turn brown and dry out.  They persist on the tree all winter and are still present when the needles grow again in the spring.

Mature tamarack cones in spring with young foliage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Mature tamarack cones in spring with young foliage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You have to look in the summer to see a tamarack rose.

 

(tamarack immature cone photos by Kate St. John. Yellow tamarack and mature cones photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the original)

The Sweet Smell Of Trees

Black locust flowers, 17 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Black locust flowers, 17 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week the air in my neighborhood smells so sweet.  The black locust trees are in bloom.

Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) are common in Pittsburgh because they’re one of the first trees to grow in poor, disturbed soil.  Our area has a lot of habitat for them, generated by people and nature — bulldozers and landslides.

Black locusts are ugly in winter with gnarly bark and twisted branches but they are sweet in May.  The trees are in the pea family and it is evident in their flowers.  Here’s what they look like in bloom.

Black locust tree in bloom, 16 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Black locust tree in bloom, 16 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

The flowers are attractive to bees and birds.  I’ve seen rose-breasted grosbeaks use their large beaks to grab the base of the flowers, then twirl to make the petals fall off. They swallow the nectar end.

Black locusts usually reach their peak on May 12 but they’re late this year.  Look for these beautifully scented trees before the flowers fade in about 10 days.

Enjoy the sweet smell of trees.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Catkins And Tiny Flowers

American hazelnut with catkins (photo by Kate St.John)
American hazelnut with catkins (photo by Kate St.John)

Every year I see these yellow catkins in March and every year I forget their name.  But this year will be different.  I’m identifying them ahead of time as American hazelnuts (Corylus americana).

The catkins are the male flowers, so full of pollen that your fingers become dusty yellow if you touch them.  They swing and flutter in the breeze to disperse their pollen to …

American hazelnut catkins, early March 2012 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
American hazelnut catkins, early March 2012 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

… to fertilize this tiny flower.  The red female flowers, located on the branches, are easy to overlook because they’re so small.  They don’t stand out because they don’t need to attract insects for pollination.

Female flower of the American hazelnut (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Female flower of the American hazelnut (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Here are some additional tips on identifying American hazelnut:

  • This nut-bearing plant is often cultivated. It produces more nuts in full sun but it grows in the shade as well.
  • American hazelnut trunks grow in clumps like a shrub.
  • The clumps are on average about 10 feet tall.
  • Its long yellow catkins indicate it’s in the birch family.
  • The bark is smooth and speckled.
  • Many of the catkins sprout alone instead of in bunches.
  • The catkins are as long — or longer — than my fingers.
  • The leaf buds are alternate on the branches.
  • The female flowers bloom from the leaf buds before the leaves appear.

Because it’s often cultivated, you’ll find American hazelnut along trails and in easy to reach places. Its nuts provide food for wildlife.

 

(photos credits: top photo by Kate St. John, closeups by Marcy Cunkelman)

The Trees Get An Early Start

American elm flowers about to open, 3 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
American elm flowers about to open, 3 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Even though March came in like a lion, the trees remember that it felt like summer last month so they’re waking up for spring.

American elms (Ulmus americana) are one of the first trees to bloom and have already begun in my city neighborhood.  Right now it’s easy to recognize young elms from afar because their twig arrangement resembles a fish skeleton dotted with reddish flower buds.  The skeleton isn’t perfect though. The “ribs” (twigs) alternate up the branch.

American elm branches with buds opening, 3 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
American elm branches with buds opening, 3 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

The trees with opposite twigs and fat red buds are red maples.  They’re blooming, too.

On the last day of February at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, the top bud on this pignut hickory was pushing out tiny leaves.  This is so premature that it reminds me of the early leaf out we had in March 2012.

Pignut hickory twig, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 28 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pignut hickory twig, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 28 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

And though the sycamores looked dormant next to Raccoon Creek …

Sycamores on the banks for Raccoon Creek, Beaver County, PA, 28 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St.John)
Sycamores on the banks for Raccoon Creek, Beaver County, PA, 28 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St.John)

… their seed balls are ready to disintegrate in the wind.

Sycamore seed balls hanging like ornaments, 3 March 2018 (photo by Kate St.John)
Sycamore seed balls hanging like ornaments, 3 March 2018 (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Will this weekend’s cold weather delay the trees?  I hope so!

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

It Just Fell Over

Red oak fell over in Schenley Park as seen on 17 January 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Red oak fell over in Schenley Park, as seen on 17 January 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sometimes soggy ground is too weak to hold a mature tree.

On Friday January 12 it rained 2 inches in 24 hours in Pittsburgh.  Then it got very cold.

This red oak was rooted in a hillside in Panther Hollow but it began to lean after so much rain.  By January 16 it blocked the Upper Trail in Schenley Park.  The Park Ranger vehicle can’t come through.

Alas, it just fell over.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)