Tag Archives: Trees

Know The Needles

This time of year, much of New York’s landscape is dappled with bare-branched deciduous trees and dark, evergreen conifers. These cone-bearing conifer trees are adapted to survive harsh, cold weather, from the microscopic structure of the leaf to the overall shape of the entire tree. Despite the needle-like shape, conifer leaves serve much the same function as the flat, broad leaves of a sugar maple or oak tree. Most conifers keep their needles year-round. Do you know which New York native conifer drops its needles every fall? It is the tamarack (Larix laricina), a member of the larches, shown below.

ChangingTamaracks
Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

TamarackNeedles
Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

On the left, these tamaracks are changing color. Every autumn the needles turn bright yellow and will fall off the tree by winter, so they are not considered an “evergreen.” On the right, a closer view of tamarack needles, which grow from a woody spur in clusters of ten to twenty. The needles are approximately ¾” to 1 ¼” inches long.

When talking about evergreens, pines may first come to mind, but conifers also include firs, spruces, hemlocks, and others. But how do we tell which is which? Here are a few quick tips to help narrow down the tree group simply by looking at the needles.

Pines

First, let’s look at pines. Pine trees have needles in bundles on the stem. The number per bundle depends on the species, but if you find bundles of five needles or less, you’ve likely discovered a pine. There are six native species of pine in New York, but two you may be most likely to encounter are white pine (Pinus strobus) and red pine (Pinus resinosa).

WhitePineTree
Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

WhitePineTreeRobert Vidéki, Doronicum Kft., Bugwood.org
Robert Vidéki, Doronicum Kft., Bugwood.org

WhitePineNeedles2
Bill Cook, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

The eastern white pine (left) and its bundled needles (middle and right). This species of pine has five needles per bundle (and as a memory trick, there are five letters in the word “white”). The needles are soft and flexible, measuring about 2 to 4 inches long.

Spruces

Spruce trees have needles that are individually attached to the branch with small woody pegs. A key characteristic for spruce needles is that they are square and can roll easily between your fingers. They are usually sharply pointed. Also, if any needles are shed the woody pegs make the branch feel rough, unlike the smooth branches of firs. There are three native spruces in New York: the white spruce (Picea glauca), the black spruce (Picea mariana), and the red spruce (Picea rubens).

WhiteSpruceTree
Bill Cook, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

WhiteSpruceNeedles
Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

The white spruce (left) and its needles (right), notice the woody pegs that attach the needle to the branch. Needles are stiff and measure about ½” to ¾” inches long. This species is sometimes called skunk spruce or cat spruce due to the strong odor from broken needles.

Firs

Fir needles are also individually attached, but unlike spruces, they are attached by what resembles a suction cup (look for a circular base). They are typically soft and flat with rounded needle tips. There are two whitish lines on the bottom of the needle. Another distinguishing characteristic of firs is that their cones stand upright on the branches, rather than droop down. The only native fir that can be found in New York is the balsam fir (Abies balsamea).

BalsamFirTree
Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

BalsamFirNeedles
Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

A stand of balsam fir (left) and its needles (right). Balsam fir needles are dark green and measure around ¾” to 1 ½” in length. The tips of the needles can be blunt, rounded, or notched.

Hemlocks

Hemlocks have individually attached needles that are flat. Unlike firs, each hemlock needle has a small stem attached to a woody peg. In New York there is only one native hemlock species, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). While you’re out testing your needle identification skills, keep an eye out for the invasive pest hemlock woolly adelgid, which creates white woolly masses at the base of hemlock needles. This insect causes tree health to decline and can lead to the death of the hemlock in as little as four years.

EasternHemlockTree
David Lee, Bugwood.org

EasternHemlockNeedles
Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

A young eastern hemlock stand (left) and its needles with stems (right). Needles are usually a shiny green. On the underside of each needle, you can see two characteristic white lines (shown in the picture). The needles are typically one inch or less in length.

So there you have it! Next time you’re out scratching your head, wondering if you’ve encountered a white spruce or a white pine, ask yourself these simple questions:

  • Are the needles in bundles or individually attached?
  • Does the needle roll easily between your fingers or is it flat?
  • Are the needles attached to a stem, woody peg, or a “suction cup” structure?

Just by taking a quick look (and maybe pluck) at the needles, it is often possible to categorize the conifer into pine, spruce, fir, or hemlock. If you come across a conifer that doesn’t fit into these categories, try looking at cedars or junipers too. And the best part of studying conifers is that you can look at needles all year long! Unless it’s a tamarack, of course.

If you’d like to learn more about some key conifers, check out this blog post to learn about identifying specific species you may encounter in State Parks!

Post by Kelsey Ruffino, State Parks

Resources:

Cover Photo – Eastern Hemlock: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=298754

Trees Spring Ahead

red_maple_buds_JLundgren

Spring is here and the tree buds are starting to pop. Red maple (Acer rubrum) is among the first to flower, revealing little tassles of red and orange. The leaves will emerge a bit later.

silver_maple_JLundgren

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is another early bloomer. Perhaps this tree was named after its silvery flowers.

Beech trees are late comers — the long skinny buds and last year’s leaves are still holding tight. They are easy to spot in the woods before everything greens up.

Beech combined
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bud and leaves.

Remember all that snow and how heavy it was? If you find trees arching over a trail or at odd angles in the woods, that may be a sign that it survived a heavy load of snow like these hemlocks. Trees are amazingly resilient and strong.

hemlocks_in_snow1_JLundgren
Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) branches bent down by the weight of the snow.

Before long the trees will be greening up and a new season of growth, with the sounds of birds, insects, and wildlife, will return. Take a walk through the woods. Look how small we are compared to the trees!

Bennington
Immersed in the woods on a trail at Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site.

Do you feel inspired, in awe, empowered or claustrophobic under a canopy of trees? More than 80% of NY State Parks and Historic Sites are covered in forest, so you can find spots like this in a park near you.

COHF_ClayPit_F16LUN20s01_tree_canopy
Tree canopy at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, Staten Island.

Perhaps you prefer viewing the trees from a distance or sitting under a favorite tree. NYS Historic Sites are great places for this: Crown Point on Lake Champlain (below), Olana on the Hudson, Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario, Lorenzo in Cazenovia, or Hyde Hall at Glimmerglass are a few spots to enjoy big trees.

Crown Pt
Crown Point State Historic Site offers scenic vistas and some beautiful trees.

Take a little time this Arbor Day to appreciate our tall tree friends and spring into action with some walks in the woods or a stroll along a tree-lined path.

Post and photos by Julie Lundgren, State Parks Ecologist, NY Natural Heritage Program, NYNHP. NYNHP works in partnership with State Parks to survey and map rare species and natural communities in the parks to aid in stewardship of their natural resources.

Nutty Over Nuts

Fall is an especially good time to find all kinds of nuts on the forest floor, in a picnic area in the park, or maybe even in your neighborhood or back yard. Let’s take a look and learn how to identify some of these wild nuts.

In technical botanical terms, all of these “nuts” are called the “fruit”. The fruit is defined as the seed and the package which holds the seed. So, for example, the acorn is the “fruit” of an oak tree, and inside is the nut which is a type of seed. If you use plant keys you will see those terms, but for general use, it is ok to call them all nuts!

Acorns are some of the most common types of nuts. Do you know what tree they come from? Acorns come from oak trees. Oaks are found far and wide across New York State and the United States so you should be able to find oak trees and acorns in a park near you. Acorns come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the type of oak they are from. They are a favorite food of squirrels, turkeys, deer, and other animals.

Red oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Red oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Red oak acorns are big (over 1 inch long) and roundish like a fat egg. They have very flat caps that cover only a small part of the acorn. The northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is the most common oak species in NY and its state parks.

Scarlet oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Scarlet oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) acorns are less than 1 inch long and have shiny caps with tight scales. Scarlet oaks are common in Eastern NY, usually found on sandy or rocky soils. If you look closely at this picture, you can see a small round hole in the acorn: a sign that it was eaten by some type of insect.

Bur oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Bur oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

The large size and heavy fringe of this acorn cap tell us that these are from bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), one of our less common oak species in NY. Sometimes you will only the acorns caps, as the nuts have been carried away by squirrels.

Walnuts

What nut looks like a green tennis ball? That would be the black walnut (Juglans nigra), from the tree of the same name. They have a really strong smell and can stain your clothes, so handle with care. Over time they turn brown and dry out. Black walnuts can be eaten but it takes a lot of work to dry and husk them. They also make a beautiful natural dye.

Black walnuts ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Fresh black walnuts can get almost as big as a tennis ball. As they age and dry out, they get smaller like the one in the center. photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

The butternut tree (Juglans cinerea) is a closely related to black walnut and has very similar nuts. They start out bright green like the black walnut, but are shaped more like footballs rather than the tennis balls shape of black walnuts.

Butternuts ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Butternuts, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

By early fall, the butternuts nuts have dried up and lost their fuzzy husk and they look very much like the English walnuts you buy in the store. This butternut was found empty. Both black walnuts and butternuts are edible but it can be tough to find one that hasn’t already been snacked on by a squirrel!

Butternut_photo by Julie Lundgren
Butternuts in mid-fall, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Hickory

Hickories are another very important tree for wildlife including turkey, deer, chipmunk, squirrel, mice and others. Of the 20 hickory species found in North America, five species are native to New York State. A good key to identifying these is found here.

Hickory shells ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Hickory nuts can have thin or thick-walled husks like the two types shown here, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.
Pignut_Bitternut_photo by Julie Lundgren
Pig nut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Pignut (Carya glabra), Mockernut (Carya tomentosa) and Bitternut (Carya cordiformis) hickory have thin husks like this. There are two types of nuts: ones that keep their husk on as they mature or ripen (“indehiscent”) and those with husks that split completely and fall off the nut by the end of fall (“dehiscent”). One has to look at the leaves and/or buds to properly identify these species. As its name suggests, Bitternut is one that is not palatable to either wildlife or people.

Shellbark Hickory_photo by Julie Lundgren
Shellback Hickory nut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Wow – what nuts are these? These are the thick husks of the Shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), a tree that is rare in NY. The husks range from 1.5 inches to nearly 3 inches long, and the nuts inside would be pointed at both ends. That’s one tough nut to crack! These husks were empty, but you can see how the cavity tapers to a point at each end. The more common Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is very similar, but the nuts are rounded at the base and the husks do not exceed 2 inches long. Nuts from both of these trees are sweet and edible.

American Chestnut

American Chestnut_photo by Julie Lundgren
American chestnut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

If you find one of these, consider yourself very lucky! This is the fruit and nut of the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata). Although a blight killed off the large trees, some sprouts persisted and some trees do get large enough to produce nuts like this. These spikes are so sharp you can’t even pick them up with your bare hands, which keeps animals from eating the nut inside. Eventually the husks open up to release the nut in hopes that a new tree will grow.

Quiz Time – What Nuts are These?

Piles hickory shells_photo by Julie Lundgren
Shell pile at the base of a tree, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

It’s easy to overlook them, but look around the base of the trees and sometimes you will find piles of nuts – empty or maybe whole. All kinds of nuts are a very important food source for wildlife. The ones shown above (mixed in with the leaves) are mostly the empty shells or husks of hickory nuts that were eaten by animals.

Shell assortment ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Can you find the following nuts: black walnut, a half-eaten butternut, 2 kinds of hickory nuts, and caps from some acorns? Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Learn More

Want to learn more about nuts and tree fruits of all kinds? Below are some good books and websites to get you started.

Fruit Key and Twig Key book_photo by Julie Lundgren
“Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs” by William Harlow, photo by Julie Lundgren.

GoBotany – an online tool for identifying plants in New England but includes most tree species found in NY state too.

Shellbark Hickory NYNHP Conservation Guide

New York Flora Atlas

Photos and post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

Happy Arbor Day

What is it about trees that can make you stop and look?

Is it the sunlight on the trunks of yellow birch that catches your eye – the bark silvery-gold and curling? Or the smooth gray bark of beech –  easy to look for scars from bear claws on this canvas. Or perhaps it is the rough platy bark of a shagbark hickory that intrigues you.  No matter what catches you about a particular tree, your gaze inevitably follows the trunk up it’s base, and continues upward into the canopy where the branches are silhouetted against the sky. The beautiful spectacle prompts many questions: How old is it? What has it been through? Are there any animals up there?

Of course, trees with showy flowers – like magnolia, cherry, or crabapple – always grab our attention. But all our broadleaf trees also have flowers, so look a little closer for those that are not so conspicuous. Among the first to flower in the spring are the maples, a hint of color in the treetops. Look for red tassels on red maple (Acer rubrum) or silver maple (Acer saccharinum) or green on sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Norway maple (Acer platanoides) has larger yellow-green flowers. Take a closer look at these little bouquets; you can usually find clusters that have fallen to the ground.

Red maple_Donald Cameron_One time use for this blog
Red maple (Acer rubrum) flowers. Photo by Donald Cameron 2017, GoBotany, used with permission.

A nice tree to look for in the spring is serviceberry, also known as shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis and A. arborea). Its delicate white flowers show up long before the other trees leaf out, so you can spot these trees more easily in spring than in the summer. There are also several shrub species of Amelanchier in NY State, all with similar flowers.

And later in the season, in May-June, look for the straight-as-a-pole tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) whose flowers look like yellow-green tulips!

Trees become a busy place in the spring too. Bees and other insects feed on the nectar and pollen of the flowers above. Woodpeckers search for insects under the bark and many animals hide out or make their home in tree cavities – bats, owls and other birds, raccoons, squirrels, and porcupines. Bears climb trees for safety and sometimes curl up in the base of big hollow trees. With all that activity, trees are a good place for wildlife watching, whether in your neighborhood or in a state park or historic site.

Birding at Minnewaska_Jubilee Feist
Binoculars are good for watching wildlife and also for getting a better look at the trees. This volunteer was making a list of birds at Minnewaska State Park Preserve on I Love My Park Day.

NY State Parks are home to countless beautiful trees.  Look for many mature and outstanding trees around the mansions and other historic sites, at campgrounds and picnic areas, and in the forests that cover nearly 80% of State Park lands. Get out and enjoy the trees on Arbor Day – and every day – in your neighborhood and favorite parks.

Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program. Photos by NYNHP or other as noted; for use by permission only.

Unseen Buds

We salute National Poetry Month with a poem by Walt Whitman, the 19th century poet whose birthplace is a New York State Historic Site.

UNSEEN BUDS

Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well,

Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square or

cubic inch,

Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic, unborn,

Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, compact, sleeping;

Billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting,

(On earth and in the sea – the universe – the stars there in the

heavens,)

Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless,

And waiting ever more, forever more behind.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of grass, 1891-1892

Take some time this month to see the poetry in the unseen buds and early spring flowers in a state park or historic site near you.