Characteristics for Identifying Trees – Catkins

Well, today is the first day of spring. We’re expecting another inch or so of snow tonight. Will it ever end? Well, when it does, the first signs of spring may not be leaves emerging from trees, but the flowers of wind pollinated trees. At Dennis Panu Arborist, we use many tree characteristics to identify trees, but, botanically speaking, the most accurate way to identify trees to species is through their flowers. In the spring, several plant families in New England produce their flowers in structures called catkins: small clusters of tiny flowers bearing a resemblance to a cat’s tail. (“Catkin” comes from an old Dutch word for “kitten.”)

Most people think of flowers as being colorful and showy. While this is true when flowers need to attract pollinators like birds or insects, trees with catkins are typically wind-pollinated. Each catkin is made up of many tiny inconspicuous flowers. Most catkins contain male flowers, producing prodigious amounts of pollen, but some trees also have female catkins. In order to facilitate pollen distribution, catkins often appear early in the spring before the tree produces leaves which would block the wind.

If you live in Massachusetts or Connecticut, keep an eye out for trees from these families as they produce flowers in the spring:

• Birch family (Betulaceae)
Trees in this family include birch, hazelnut and hornbeam. Look for the pendulous male catkins dangling in the wind early in the spring. Birch family trees also have their female flowers in catkins, which are much smaller then the male catkins and fixed on the branch. (An exception is hazelnut; the female flowers occur singly on the branch to accommodate the large nuts.) Betulaceae trees are monoecious (“one house”), meaning that male and female flowers occur on the same tree. The species of birch can often be determined by the number of catkins in each cluster. Here are some photos of birch catkins.

• Willow family (Salicaceae)
Including willow, cottonwood and poplar, trees in this family are dioecious (“two houses”), meaning that male and female catkins appear on separate trees. It can be difficult to tell the tiny male and female flowers apart, but an arborist can make the distinction. The fuzzy “pussy willow” you see in flower arrangements is a classic example of this family’s catkins. Also, the drifts of snowy seed pods floating through the air in spring are a sure sign that a female Salicaceae tree is nearby.

• Oak and beech family (Fagaceae)
Everyone recognizes the acorns produced by oaks (or, less commonly, beech nuts), but keep an eye out for these trees’ flowers. Oaks and beeches produce hanging male catkins for wind pollination. Female flowers are not in catkins, however, but occur singly or in pairs in the leaf axils (where the leaf meets the main branch). Fagaceae trees are monoecious, with both male and female flowers on the same tree.

For help identifying trees on your Massachusetts or Connecticut property, or for other tree care service questions, contact Dennis Panu Arborist today.

Veteran and Wolf Trees

There is more and more discussion among arborists regarding preserving “old” trees.  Many are concerned that these “over-mature” trees, with their dead branches and open cavities, pose a threat to people nearby.  Others argue that these “veteran trees” as they are referred to in Europe, or “wolf trees” in the American lexicon, provide valuable and irreplaceable ecological benefits.  We are talking about 100 to 300 hundred and even 500 year old trees here.  Everyone recognizes the antiquity of the redwoods and bristle cone pines out west, but many of these veteran, or wolf trees, reside right here with us in New England, some outdating the birth of our nation.   We need to learn to recognize these trees for what they are and not as just some old tree that should be removed.  Here is an interesting article about “wolf trees” in our forests, but you should recognize that many of these trees also exist in our own back yards.  Before you decide to just kill that old tree on your property, you should consult with an ASCA Consulting Arborist to discuss your options and just maybe save hundreds of years worth of history and a habitat that can’t be recreated for centuries to come.

Wolf Trees: Elders of the Eastern Forest

Invasive Plants in Naturalized Areas

IMAG0079Invasive plant species are a problem that can have a serious impact on our local ecosystems.  The Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group [MIPAG] defines invasive plants as “non-native species that have spread into native or minimally managed plant systems in Massachusetts, causing economic or environmental harm by developing self-sustaining populations and becoming dominant and/or disruptive to those systems.”    According to the New England Wild Flower Society, “seventy-nine species [of invasive plants] cost the U.S. economy more than $97 billion annually in lost crops, failed recovery efforts for endangered species, and control efforts. Invasive species have contributed to the decline of 42% of U.S. endangered and threatened species; for 18% of U.S. endangered or threatened species, invasives are the main cause of decline.”

Invasive plants decrease biodiversity and displace native species that wildlife depend upon for food and cover.  For example, bush honeysuckle (Lonicera s.pp.) creates dense stands that exclude native plant species.  The fruits, produced from mid-summer through early fall, are very attractive to birds.  While the fruits are rich in carbohydrates, they lack the fat and nutrient content to sustain migrating birds on their long journeys south; they are essentially junk food for birds.  Because the dense stands of honeysuckle exclude the nutritious native plants, they become the dominant fodder for migrating birds at a time when they need to foraging on nutritious food for their trip south the most.

In most cases, it is not practical to completely eliminate invasive plants from your community, but you can create pockets of invasive free areas on your own property.  First, identify invasives on your property.  Spring and fall are good times to look for invasives; most of the understory invasive shrubs leaf out first in the spring and drop their leaves last.

Putnam Thompson Woodstock Danielson Killingly Plainfield Union

The first flush of green in this North Oxford, MA woodlot is from Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii). In addition to all the other negative aspects of invasive plants, Barberry is implicated in the spread of Lyme Disease; The dense thickets formed by these thorny plants protect white-footed deer mice, the main host for the disease-vectoring black legged or deer tick, from predators.

Of course there are many other invasive plant species you may want to familiarize yourself with and explore the various options for controlling them, including mechanical methods such as hand pulling them or chemical controls.  Here are just a few of the many websites you can visit to learn more about invasive plants and how to control them:

Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory   Group

Audubon Connecticut

New England Wild Flower Society

RI Invasive Species Council

The Invasive Plant Atlas of New England’s (IPANE)

Pennsylvania DCNR

Planning Your 2014 Fruit Crop

Well, its snowing AGAIN here in Thompson, CT.  Cabin fever is setting in.  But for those of you planning your fruit crops for the coming year, there is hope.  Here is a link to the UMass Extension’s Cold Spring Orchard.  and the Fruit Adviser web page  You’ll find useful information information on everything from selecting good apple varieties to plant in New England to how to prune your raspberries.  So start boning up; spring will be here before you know it!

Characteristics for Identifying Trees – Twigs

We use many characteristics to identify trees such as leaves, buds, bark, form, and even the diseases they get and where they are located.

This time of year, with no leaves on most trees, I depend mostly on the twigs, buds, and bark of the tree.  Some trees are easily identified from afar by their bark, such as shagbark hickory (Carya ovata).  For other, more difficult to identify species, I begin by looking at the twigs.  The most important characteristic of the twigs to note is how the buds or secondary branches are arranged on them.  Most of the trees in my region have the buds emerging alternately on the twig.  That is, one bud will emerge on the left side of the twig, then the next will emerge on the right side, continuing along the twig.  This arrangement is usually modified by the opposite pattern on emergence spiraling up the twig, so that looking at the twig on end, the bud placement resembles a spiral staircase.  Oaks, elms and cherries are common examples of this arrangement.

Alternate Branching Habit

Less common is the opposite branching habit, where two buds will emerge opposite each other on the twig.  Again, this pattern is usually modified such that each successive pair of buds emerge perpendicular to the previous pair. This arrangement is common on viburnums, maples, dogwoods, and ash trees.  Opposite branching habit is a particularly useful characteristic to note because relatively few trees bear their branches oppositely.

Opposite Branching Habit

A third branching habit is the whorl.  A whorl is where three or more buds emerge together on the twig.  Trees bearing the whorled habit are even fewer that opposite branched trees.  Catalpa is a common example.  Pines, spruces, and firs are also examples of trees with a whorled habit.

Whorled Branch Habit

Once you have identified the branching habit of the tree, the next step is to examine the buds.  I will talk more about the buds and other characteristics in following posts.

What’s in a Tree’s Name Part 2

We all know that trees go by two names; their common names and their botanical names (often reffered to as their Latin names, which I eschew because many of the names are derived from Greek as well).  We’re all familiar with common names that describe our trees such as flowering cherry.    But what’s with these botanical names?  Even if you can manage to get a pronunciation out, it all sounds like gibberish!  What do we need those for?  Well, as we saw in my April post on shadbush, also known as serviceberry, some trees can have more than one common name depending on where you come from and what characteristics you choose to describe with that common name.

Botanical names were devised to provide a standardized nomenclature that everyone everywhere could use to talk about their trees without confusion.  For example, for me, red maple means Acer rubrum, but lots of folks call them swamp maples, because, in their minds, red maples are those maples that have red leaves in the summer, Crimson King Norway maples, Acer platanoides ‘Crimson King’.

As crazy sounding as those botanical names sound, they do have meanings that are very descriptive of a plant’s characteristics.  The genus name Acer, for example, comes from the latin word acer meaning bitter, sour, sharp, or pointed.  Its the pointed meaning that applies to maples, describing the pointed tips of the leaf’s lobes.  (Thanks to collegue Alby Thoumsin for helping me figure that one out!)  And rubrum means red, to describe the fall color of the leaves.

OK, so I agree it can get a little crazy.  How about this one: Gleditsia triacanthos inermis. The genus name, Gleditsia, is a tribute to the German botanist Johann Gottlieb Gleditsch.  Not exactly a descriptive of the plant, but interesting none the less.  The specific epithet triacanthos, the second part of the name that refers to the species, means three-parted thorns, describing the tree’s thorns that are not just a single prong, but produce three levels of branching.  The suffix inermis indicates that this variety is thornless.  So, this is a thorny tree named after a famous botonist that has no thorns!

So next time you are searching through your nursery and garden catalogues, don’t ignore those botanical names, they can tell you a lot about the plants you are looking at.  There are many websites that provide dictionaries of specific epithets.  Here’s one:

I haven’t found any dictionaries of the meanings of genus names.  To understand these names I do etymological searches of the name on websites such as these:

If this all gets to be too much to bear, check out this fun article for a sanity check:

October Update

Sorry I’ve been away from the keyboard again.  Its just been crazy busy around here for the last month or so.  Just when we were getting caught up on cleaning up damages from the June 1, 2011 tornado that hit Massachusetts (here is a link to photos of the damage, don’t miss the aerial photos beginning on page 9: and the severe thunder storms that hit our area in the following weeks, we were hammered by the remnants of Hurricane Irene.  To make matters worse, Irene struck two days before I was scheduled to travel to Berkley, CA for a meeting of the American Society of Consulting Arborists Board of Directors.  It was a commitment I had to keep.  Fortunately, our team of Chris Haynes, Adam Bumpus, and Mike West had things under control, providing prompt service to our clients most in need.  Kudos to those guys!

While we still have a heavy backlog of work to catch up on, things are normalizing again, so I thought would make a post.

It looks like the fall colors will be pretty dismal around here.  With such a wet season as we have had, just about every kind of tree has been infected with some type of leaf spot disease, causing the leaves to drop prematurely.  Most of the red maples (Acer rubrum) in my back yard are half defoliated already, and the remaining foliage is turning with weak colors.

Most of the sugar maples, the signature fall foliage plant in New England, have been infected with Anthracnose, leaving them with brown and shriveled leaves that won’t amount to much, color wise.  Our poplars, noted for their brilliant, golden-yellow fall color are just about completely defoliated, as are many of our white ash trees, which often contribute purplish hues to the fall landscape.

The TV Meteorologists alwas make a big deal about peak fall color, But I have always considered there to be three peaks.  The red maple peak, which comes first, followed by the sugar maple peak that TV guys like to crow about, and lastly, the oak peak, a subdued but long lasting show of muted crimsons, golds, and browns that look best in setting sunlight.  It looks like the oak peak will be the star of this year’s fall color show as the oaks around here seem to have fared well this year with regard to leaf diseases.

On another note, the Massachusetts Arborist Association held our fall Certified Arborist Exam on Friday, September 30.  As Chair of the Examining Committee, I am happy to announce that about two-thirds of the 35 or so candidates passed the exam.  Congradulations to our newest MCAs.  As a member of the Committee for the past seven years, I have witnessed the Committee’s commitment to improving the Certification process through developing a Study Guide CD and redesigning the exam.  Our goal is to ensure that the public has access to quality tree care services by selecting tree care companies that employ Massachusetts Certified Arborists.  The Massachusetts Arborist Association plans to launch Version 2 of our study Guide in early 2012, with an improved exam format for the Fall 2012 Exam.

If you want to know what pests to look for in your yard this month head on over to this site:

That’s all for today.  I hope to be back soon.

Serviceberry: What’s in a tree’s name?

a_Amelanchier_cnadensis__Shadbush_[1]In a previous post, we talked about using growing degree days and phenological indicators to time pest control applications, but phenological indicators have been used for centuries for many purposes.  Take the blooming time of Amelanchier canadensis, commonly known as serviceberry in northern New England or shadbush along the Connecticut River.  This tall woody shrub is found along the borders of wetlands and usually goes unnoticed until it produces profuse white flowers in spring.

In northern New England, the timing of Amelanchier’s bloom coincides with the time the earth has thawed enough to bury the folks who passed away over the course of the winter and funeral services could be held, hence the name serviceberry.

Along the Connecticut River, Amelanchier’s bloom coincides with the running of the shad, an anadromous fish often called the poor man’s salmon that served as an important food source during colonial times and is still a much sought after sport fish.

Here in northeast Connecticut, the flower buds of shadbush, as I prefer to call it, are just breaking open.  So as you’re driving around New England this month, keep your eyes peeled for the beautiful blooms of Amelanchier canadensis.

Red Maple Flowers Are A Sign Of Spring

Red Maple FlowersFor me spring brings a special joy; watching trees bloom.  I’m not just talking about the obvious bloomers like the magnolias and flowering cherries, but the more subtle flowers of our common woodland trees.  These often go unnoticed by most folks, but I find them a real pleasure.  Many of our woodland trees are wind polinated so its logical that they bloom before the leaves come out and thus are a first sign of the end of winter.  One of my favorites is red maple Acer rubrum.  When red maples bloom whole stands of previously winter-grey trees blush red with spring.  And if you look closley you can identify the male trees from the female trees.  Yes!  Some tree species have male trees and female trees!

This condition is known as being dioecious from Greek for ‘two houses’, because the two sexes ‘live’ on separate trees.  Trees with both sexes on the same tree are known as monoecious meaning in ‘one house’.  You can identify the male red maple trees because the red flowers will be tinted with yellow by the pollen bearing anthers.

So while you are out in your yard enjoying the warm spring sunshine look up from the daffodils and admire the really big flowering plants in your yard!