Category Archives: Trees

Red Maples Are Complicated

Male red maple flowers fallen from the tree, 10 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

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).

Female red maple flowers on the tree, developing samaras, 10 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Wikipedia Acer Rubrum

Watch your local red maples to see what they’re up to. The one in my backyard dropped its flowers a few days ago. This year it’s a male. 😉

p.s. For more on maple phenology, read Chuck Tague’s blog post: Maples In Spring: A Study in Diversity.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Buds About To Burst

Yellow buckeye buds about to burst, 1 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Closed bud on 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In hot years — such as 2012 — the buds opened weeks ahead of schedule. This buckeye was completely leafed on 19 March 2012.

Yellow buckeye tree 19 March 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

This year appears to be a “normal” spring … whatever that means these days.

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Trees Are Snowing

Drift of fluffy seeds from London plane trees, 17 March 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Like their parents — oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis) + American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) — London plane trees retain their dangling seed balls over the winter.

London plane tree fruit in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Then in the first warmth and light of spring the seed balls disintegrate and the seeds blow away. You’ll find drifts near American sycamores, too.

London plane tree fruit disintegrating (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In March the trees are snowing.

(seed drift photo by Kate St. John; remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the images to see the original)

Weeping Willows Hint of Spring

Weeping willow turning yellow, Schenley Park, 15 Feb 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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 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 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,

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,, 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)