This week the hillsides turned faintly red as red maples (Acer rubrum) bloomed across southwestern Pennsylvania. The city’s maples bloom sooner than the suburbs so I’ve had a preview of what’s to come.
In Schenley Park the ground under some red maples is carpeted with fallen flowers (above) while others retain flowers that are setting seed (below).
That’s because red maples are sexually complicated. They are polygamodioecious which means some trees have only male flowers, some have only female, and some have both (i.e. hermaphroditic). And they can even switch back and forth:
Under the proper conditions, the tree can sometimes switch from male to female, male to hermaphroditic, and hermaphroditic to female.
Yesterday I found these buds about to burst in Schenley Park.
Yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava) are one of the first trees to leaf out in the spring, unfurling their dramatic palmate leaves. They’re such a welcome splash of green that I photograph them nearly every year. This is the first time I noticed the bud at this stage. I didn’t expect it to be red.
Over the years my buckeye photographs have documented the vagaries of spring in Schenley Park. In cooler years — such as 2015 — the buds weren’t this far along in mid-April. Here’s a closed bud on 15 April 2015.
In hot years — such as 2012 — the buds opened weeks ahead of schedule. This buckeye was completely leafed on 19 March 2012.
This year appears to be a “normal” spring … whatever that means these days.
Last week I found fluffy drifts on the sidewalks in my neighborhood. They’re the airborne seeds of London plane trees (Platanus × acerifolia), planted in Pittsburgh in the late 1800s because they’re tolerant of air pollution.
Weeping willows (Salix babylonica) are popular landscape trees that were brought here from Asia. They’re easy to notice at this time of year because their drooping stems turn yellow in very early spring. From a distance you see a splash of yellow.
Imported species, especially those from Europe, grew up in a steady climate with few spring surprises so they’re quick to bloom in the spring and late to drop their leaves in autumn.
Meanwhile our native trees are still brown, conservative about producing tender shoots because they know that volatile spring weather can bring a killing frost in April.
Are you tired of winter? Watch for the weeping willow’s hint of spring.
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.
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.
Younger trees have tapered tops like candle flames.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s what my favorite hillside looked like yesterday. 50% of the trees still have leaves.
The power failures wouldn’t have been so bad if most of the trees had been bare.