I was walking in the woods one day, as I am wont to do, when I came across this fruit on the ground:
I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve never seen a butternut tree around here, but this looks suspiciously like a butternut (Juglans cinerea). I looked up at the trees over the spot where I found the nut, but there were definitely no butternuts (or black walnuts, either), although there were several hickories.
A typical hickory fruit is more spherical, such as this shagbark hickory (Carya ovata):
Mockernut (C. tomentosa) fruit are similar, but they’re distinguishable when you open them up:
The mockernut, on the left, has a large kernel surrounded by thin flesh, while the shagbark on the right has a small kernel and very thick flesh.
I opened up the mystery nut, and on the inside it looks very much like a mockernut, albeit aberrantly shaped:
It’s definitely not a butternut, as the shell of a butternut is deeply grooved, much like this black walnut (J. nigra):
Here’s another hickory; I believe that it is a bitternut (C. cordiformis), but I can’t get near enough to the tree to pick one off and look at it closely:
There’s another kind of hickory around here that I didn’t mention back in the June installment, because I hadn’t come across an example. But now I have:
The shellbark hickory (C. laciniosa) has bark that’s peely like shagbark, but in smaller pieces. I probably would have passed right by this tree had I not noticed the fruit. The fruit of the shellbark is round and huge, almost the size of a tennis ball. Unfortunately, this one was standing in a swamp, and I was not willing to search for a fallen nut in the fetid water. (I will only go so far for you, dear reader.)
Other trees setting fruit in August are black cherries (Prunus serotina):
And yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava):
The fruit of Ohio buckeye (A. glabra) is more spherical, and sparsely covered with short spines.
Late summer is mushroom season in the Appalachian forests. There are mushrooms at other times of year, too, but the peak is in July and August. One of the most sought after is the golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius):
This is one of the few wild mushrooms that I’m willing to pick and eat. There are a few inedible and even poisonous species that are vaguely similar, but a telltale identifying characteristic of the chanterelle is the presence of small ridges, in place of true gills, on the underside of the cap:
This is a destroying angel (Amanita virosa):
You can probably guess from the name that it’s one you shouldn’t eat. It and its close relatives are the species most often responsible for mushroom-related fatalities. Its toxicity is especially insidious because by the time you experience any symptoms, your liver and kidneys are pretty much gone.
The destroying angel is pure white, but other Amanita mushrooms are not. Like the other members of its genus, there is a distinct “veil” on the stem, and the base of the mushroom appears to emerge from an egg:
Here’s another veiled mushroom:
I wasn’t able to figure this one out; maybe Amanita or Lepiota. I don’t think I’ll eat it.
This one is a bolete; I believe that it is Gyroporus castaneus, the chestnut bolete, but I’m not 100% sure:
I didn’t get a good photo of the underside, but in place of gills, boletes are covered with tiny, close-packed pores.
Many Russula mushrooms, such as this short-stemmed russula (R. brevipes), won’t kill you but are not particularly good to eat:
Interestingly, they can become infected by a parasitic fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, which causes them to turn bright red, whereupon they’re known as lobster mushrooms. Apparently, in this form they are much better tasting (I’ve never tried), with a seafood-like taste (appropriately enough). I’ve seen lobster mushrooms in these woods before, but couldn’t find any this year.
The stalked scarlet cup (Sarcoscypha occidentalis) is tiny, but is so brightly colored that it’s easy to pick out, growing on fallen twigs on the forest floor:
Not all mushrooms look like mushrooms. The jellied false coral (Tremellodendron pallidum) is closely associated with oak trees:
We can’t have a false coral mushroom without also having a true coral mushroom, so here’s a crested coral (Clavulina cristata):
I found these mushrooms growing on some hardwood mulch in my front yard:
It took quite a bit of research, but I think I’ve correctly identified them as Hohenbuehelia mastrucata, the wooly oyster mushroom.
I’ve avoided writing about grasses, mostly because there just aren’t that many that grow in the woods. They’re also usually pretty hard to tell apart. But one common grass that grows deep in the shade and is easy to identify is eastern bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix):
I found this flower growing in my yard:
It’s an orchid, spring lady’s tresses (Spiranthes vernalis). Despite the name, it often blooms in late summer. While researching it online, I discovered that there was no record for this species for Athens County in the USDA PLANTS database, so I submitted photos and other documentation, and now there is.
I took the above photo ten years ago, and I haven’t seen it blooming since. I don’t know if the plant is still around or not. It’s very inconspicuous when it’s not blooming.
After a couple of slow wildflower months, activity begins to pick up again in August. Because it’s still pretty dark in the woods, most woodland-associated wildflowers are found either in open spaces within the woods, or along the margins.
There are many, many species of goldenrod (Solidago), and they can be very tricky to tell apart. One of the earliest to bloom is the aptly-named early goldenrod (S. juncea):
It’s hard to tell from the photo, but this one is easy to identify by its narrow leaves without toothed margins, along with small offshoot leaves that grow out from the bases of the main leaves.
The widespread goldenrod that we see along roadsides and in open fields is tall goldenrod (S. altissima). It’s sometimes called Canada goldenrod, but that name is also used for S. canadensis. You’re probably aware that there are many plants that have been imported from elsewhere into North America, and that have turned out to be extremely invasive. It works both ways, as Canada goldenrod has wreaked havoc in Europe and Asia, even leading to the extinction of several species in China.
The common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) grows in grassy openings in the woods:
The Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) is a member of the nightshade family, and shares the same five-petaled “beaked” flowers that all nightshades have:
Look closely, and you can see the thorns covering its stems and the undersides of its leaves. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the tomato-like fruits are the only part that might kill you.
I’ve mostly let nature take over the yard, and as a result, tall ironweed (Vernonia altissima) has started showing up:
At first, the deer would munch off the leaves before the plants got very far along, but now there are enough of the plants that I get lots of flowers. And it really is tall; this particular plant reaches well above my head.
It’s a stretch to call butterfly milkweed (Aclepias tuberosa) a woodland wildflower, but it’s one of my favorites, so you get a photo anyway:
The three of you who pay close attention to my ramblings may recall that a couple of months ago, I wrote about the origin of the name sycamore, applied to both a kind of maple in Europe, and a kind of planetree in North America. The name supposedly refers to the shape of the leaves, and traces back to the sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus). However, as far as I could determine, the sycomore fig’s leaves look nothing like those of either kind of sycamore. So what gives? I was determined to find out, so I booked a flight to South Africa [Truth-O-Meter:True] so that I could settle the question once and for all [Truth-O-Meter:Pants on Fire].
As it happened, I found a sycomore tree fairly quickly. This is the only one I saw that had fruit:
[Apologies for the poor image quality, but I only had my cell phone at the time, and the lighting was terrible.]
And, as various online sources suggest, the leaves look nothing like those of a sycamore (of either kind):
So, I have to go with my earlier hypothesis that somebody got a different kind of fig confused with the sycomore (possibly F. carica), and it’s really that other kind after which the sycamore (either kind) was named.
Having more or less resolved that issue, I decided to spend the next couple of weeks walking through the woods of South Africa [Truth-O-Meter:Mostly False]. In doing so, I faced some challenges: I know very little about the trees of South Africa, so I usually had no idea what I was looking at. And, it being winter, almost nothing was flowering. Add to that the fact that in most of South Africa, winter is also the dry season, which meant that many of the trees had lost their leaves. And did I mention that South Africa is mostly grassland? There just aren’t many trees to begin with.
Nevertheless, I soldiered on (all for you, dear reader). Fortunately, I did a lot of my woods-walking in national and regional parks, and many of the trees in these parks share a key characteristic that simplifies identification:
These signs were pretty neat, and something I hadn’t seen before: If you scan the QR code with your smartphone, it takes you to a web page with more information about the plant. (And yes, as you can guess from the scientific name, plants in this genus are the original source of the neurotoxin strychnine.)
But, like any product of modern technology, this one, too, has bugs:
The QR code on this sign does take you to a web page, but it’s the wrong one, for a different tree. Here’s what the tree itself (the right one, not the wrong) looks like:
Jackal-berries are in the genus Diospyros, which is the genus of both ebony and persimmon. Most Disopyros species are fairly small and therefore not commercially valuable, but nearly all of them have very hard wood, with the heartwood usually dark brown or black. The wood of these smaller trees is used for ornamental turnings and the like. The fruit looks a lot like a small persimmon:
(This one is a common jackal-berry, D. mespiliformis.)
Let’s officially begin our walk near the west coast, in the Northern Cape in an area known as Namaqualand (or, sometimes, the “succulent Karoo,” which is a pretty evocative name, if you ask me). Namaqualand is arid, not quite desert but close. There is very little rainfall, but some moisture does arrive from the Atlantic Ocean. There are virtually no trees, but like the deserts of the southwestern U.S. that are dominated by tree-like cacti, Namaqualand is also dominated by large succulents, only these are aloes, rather than cacti:
This one is the quiver tree, Aloe dichotoma. Although it appears substantial, the “trunk” is hollow and fibrous, resembling more a giant loofah than a log. The barren Namaqua landscape is punctuated by the desiccated skeletons of long-dead quiver trees:
As we travel eastward and inland, we move away from the ocean influence, and enter the Great Karoo:
There are still no trees (except along water courses), and the terrain and vegetation are strongly reminiscent of the Great Basin in North America. The few large trees that do exist are heavily (and I do mean heavily) utilized by Sociable Weavers (Philetairus socius):
The tree is an acacia of some kind, possibly sweet thorn (Vachellia karroo), but I’m not sure.
Even further east, we enter the Kalahari grasslands:
The Kalahari Desert itself is found mostly in Namibia and Botswana, extending just barely into South Africa, but the surrounding Kalahari Basin extends as far south as the city of Kimberley. This is still predominantly grassland, but you do begin to see small trees here and there. After spring rains, the area greens up quite a bit (this photo is from 2012, in December):
That meerkat (Suricata suricatta) was giving me a “Who are you and what are you doing in my front yard?” look.
Like other plants of arid regions around the world, nearly all of the shrubs and trees in the Kalahari are covered with thorns or spines:
This one is a common spike-thorn (Gymnosporia heterophylla). Its closest North American relatives are American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) and eastern burningbush or wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), both vines.
Around the edges of the basin, you start to see “real” trees. This camelthorn acacia (Vachellia erioloba) was at Sandveld Nature Reserve, in Free State:
Like most other legumes, the wood is very hard and difficult to work. The “camel” in the name refers to giraffes, which use their long prehensile tongues to delicately pluck off the leaves from between the thorns of this and other acacias. In response to the browsing, the trees quickly begin to produce bitter tannin in the foliage, inducing the giraffe to move on to another plant. (Other trees, such as some oaks, respond similarly, but the acacia’s response is remarkably fast, on the order of five to ten minutes.)
As a rule, the many species of acacia have very similar foliage, so it’s difficult to tell one from another by looking at the leaves. But the flowers and especially the fruit are often very distinctive. The seed pods of the camelthorn are large and robust:
Moving south to the southern Indian Ocean coast, we find true forest, here at Tsitsikamma National Park, in Eastern Cape:
The dominant trees (by size, at least) in these coastal montane forests are Outeniqua yellowwood (Afrocarpus falcatus), and “true” yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius). Both are botanically softwoods, in the family Podocarpaceae, distantly related to pines. The wood of true yellowwood is reasonably hard and has good workability, and so is prized for furniture and architectural millwork. Outeniqua yellowwood is softer and more likely to be found in utilitarian applications. The true yellowwood is also the national tree of South Africa.
These yellowwood logs (I don’t know which species) were in the process of being harvested after having been downed during a strong winter storm in 2008:
It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the logs are quite large, close to three feet in diameter.
As we continue up the coast to the east, the terrain becomes less mountainous. In isolated valleys, we find scarp forest, such as here at the Dlinza Forest Reserve in Eshowe:
This view is from an observation tower overlooking the forest. From the tower, we were able to get a treetop look at the fruit of a fig (F. thonningii) that is common in this forest:
If you look closely at the forest photo above, you can see what looks like a pom-pom on a stick on the horizon. This is a Natal cabbage-tree (Cussonia sphaerocephala). The scientific name means “spherical head.” Here’s another cabbage-tree, this one with multiple heads (the hydra of the cabbage-tree realm, it would seem):
The interior of the scarp forest looks not all that different from a temperate forest in North America, although the trees here grow more slowly and therefore tend to be more twisted and bent:
As is generally the case in areas colonized by Europeans, many of the plants and animals are named after familiar species that they resemble, even if in reality they are not closely related. Thus, we have this wild-poplar or false-poplar (Macaranga capensis):
With enough squinting, you can imagine that the leaves on this tree somewhat resemble those of an aspen or poplar. But the tree is actually in the spurge family Euphorbiaceae. Most spurges are shrubs or forbs, with a few species occurring in the southwestern U.S. The one species that most people are familiar with is the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), native to Mexico. The wood of the false-poplar is said to be used for furniture, but I would personally be hesitant to work with it, as most spurges contain compounds that range from mildly irritating to, in the case of the castor bean, deadly poisonous.
The largest trees at Dlinza are the wild-plums (Harpephyllum caffrum):
For scale, the vine that hangs down in front of the tree is about twelve feet off the ground. As with the false-poplar, wild-plums are unrelated to what we call plums, and are in the sumac family Anacardiaceae, relatives of cashews, mangoes, and pistachios. Likewise, most members of this family contain toxic compounds. With sumacs, the toxin is urushiol, the active ingredient in poison oak/poison ivy. The wood is used for general-purpose construction, but is otherwise not notable.
The eastern corner of South Africa is home to lowland coastal forest:
One of the more common trees here is waterberry (Syzigium cordatum), a kind of myrtle:
I couldn’t find any information on the use of the wood, but the trees are fairly small and gnarly, so I suspect it has no widespread use. The berries (not present in winter) are apparently tasty.
The lowland forest in St. Lucia is also where we had an unexpectedly close encounter with a hippopotamus one evening. That’s a story for another time, but suffice to say that it was a Very Good Thing that we were standing in the adjacent parking lot, rather than walking in the woods, at the time.
Nearby, at Cape Vidal in iSimangaliso (“miracle and wonder”) Wetland Park, I found the only blooming woodland wildflower of the trip:
I have not the slightest idea what it is. It seems to have characteristics of both orchids and irises, which means that it might be a member of the order Asparagales. There are only about 36,000 species in that order….
Heading back northwards, we cross onto the Great Escarpment and the southern end of the Drakensberg (“mountain of dragons”). This is the beginning of the highveld (“high field”). The habitat is once again mostly grassland, but with pockets of woodland along the riparian corridors, such as here in Golden Gate Highlands National Park (in summer):
Near Johannesburg, the climate is drier, and the forest more sparse:
(Those odd-looking dark cylinders are another kind of aloe, A. marlothii.) Here, at Suikerbosrand (“sugarbush ridge”) Reserve, the trees once again become small and gnarly. The karee (Searsia lancea), another member of the sumac family, has hard wood that resembles yew and is likewise used for archery bows:
The buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) is in the buckthorn family Rhamnaceae:
The closest North American relative that I know of is Carolina buckthorn (Rhamnus caroliniana). My main reason for including this tree, however, is the Afrikaans name:
How can you not love a tree called “Blinkblaar-wag-’n-bietjie”? The name translates to “shiny-leafed wait-a-minute.” Other shrubs with recurved thorns, such as the catclaw acacia of Arizona (Senegalia greggii) also go by the name “wait-a-minute” or “wait-a-bit,” which comes from what people invariably say after getting tangled up by accidentally walking into one.
Finishing up in the northeastern corner of South Africa, we drop back off the Great Escarpment and enter the lowveld in Kruger National Park, extending from the province of Limpopo at the north end to Mpumalanga in the south. This is the southern limit of what we think of when we visualize the vast savannahs of eastern Africa. It is a mixed woodland/grassland habitat, with shrubs and small to medium-sized trees scattered throughout. In the far north we can find huge baobabs (Adansonia digitata), which are fairly uncommon in South Africa (they are much more common in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Tanzania, to the north and east):
This region is also the home of the only wood from the area that is commercially exported: African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon). In South Africa, the climate is a little too dry, and blackwood (known locally by the Swahili name mpingo) grows as small, multi-trunked trees that are little more than large shrubs (much like eastern redbuds in the U.S.). You have to go further east into Mozambique and Tanzania before you find trees that are large enough for harvest. Much of the wood goes to the manufacture of clarinets, oboes, and other woodwind instruments.
A view from the Mlondozi picnic area near the Lower Sabie camp in Kruger gives an overall impression of the lowveld:
(For what it’s worth, according to Google Translate, the Zulu word “mlondozi” means “skin.”) The larger trees of the lowveld are nearly always located near water.
One common lowveld tree that anyone can remember is fever tree (Vachellia xanthophloea):
Its Grinch-colored bark is instantly recognizable. The fever tree was named by early European settlers, who noticed that the likelihood of contracting malaria was greater in the vicinity of the trees (which tend to grow in swampy areas harboring mosquitoes).
Traveling around Kruger, the most common large tree that I saw was Natal mahogany (Trichilia emetica):
Like African mahogany (Khaya), as well as sapele and sipo (Entandrophragma), Trichilia really is related to mahogany. The wood looks similar to those other species. While researching this species online I discovered that it is sometimes grown in a container as a houseplant.
Another common tree (also in the mahogany family Meliaceae) is cape-ash (Ekebergia capensis). The leaves do look a bit like those of ash:
The bark is different, though:
The bushwillows (Combretum sp.) are readily recognized by their four-winged samaras. This one is russet bushwillow (C. hereroense):
The only tree I found in full bloom was knob-thorn (Senegalia nigrescens):
The profusion of cream-colored flowers made these large trees easy to recognize from a distance. Other related legumes, identified once again by their seed pods, are the sicklebush (Dichrostachys cinerea):
and bullhorn acacia (Vachellia cornigera):
This lone seed pod in a leafless pod-mahogany tree (Afzelia quanzensis, not a true mahogany) illustrates the challenges I sometimes faced with identification:
I did eventually find one that still had a few leaves:
Afzelia is a genus of trees that wasn’t very well known to North American woodworkers until the publication of James Krenov’s Cabinetmaker’s Notebook trilogy. Relatives of this species from more tropical regions of Africa are the source of one of his favorite woods, doussie.
I found this Sansevieria (mother-in-law’s tongue) growing in the shade under some small trees. I believe that it is S. hyacinthoides (the common house plant is S. trifasciata).
That ends our whirlwind tour of the flora of South Africa (I skipped some parts). As always, I encourage you to find time to take a walk in your own woods. Keep your eyes and ears open; you never know what you might find:
I believe this is a marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea). To be honest, though, I wasn’t really focused on the tree at the time.
With June comes summer, and the forest pretty much goes on cruise control. Everything that was happening keeps happening, and not much new happens.
American basswood (Tilia americana) is a late bloomer, literally. It blooms in the early part of June:
I had a hard time getting a photo; this is about the best I could get. (The light kept changing, and the breeze kept moving things in and out of the shadows and in and out of focus.) You can see a tongue-like bract above each cluster of flowers. These bracts are much paler than the leaves, so they stand out, even from a distance.
Here’s another June-blooming tree, this one with wild-and-crazy flowers:
It’s a chestnut, probably a Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima). While Chinese chestnuts (imported after the demise of the American chestnut due to chestnut blight) are common near houses, this one is growing in a semi-wild location. It’s also possible that it is a hybrid. American chestnuts (C. dentata) do still occur in Ohio, but they only grow for a couple of years before they succumb to the blight. The largest one I’ve ever seen was about five feet tall.
Here is one of the tree’s leaves:
The fact that it is very broad and almost square across at the base is what suggests that it is a Chinese chestnut; the other possibility, Japanese chestnut (C. crenata) is more rounded. American chestnut leaves are paler green, and they taper to a point at both ends.
The other trees are all done flowering, and the ones that haven’t already dropped their seeds are busy growing this season’s crop. The fruit of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is, of course, the beech nut (just like the baby food):
They are supposedly tasty, but I’ve never managed to find one in that period of a few microseconds between when they turn ripe and when the squirrels take all of them.
The leaves of the American beech are somewhat elm-like (see last month), but are symmetric at the base (despite the fact that this one looks asymmetric, because I couldn’t get it to lay flat):
There are many species of hickory, and they are rather confusing. There are two species that I see here in my yard. First up is shagbark hickory (Carya ovata):
Shagbark has five leaflets, and the three distal ones are teardrop-shaped and much larger than the other two. At high magnification, the margins of the leaves have little tufts of hair.
The other one in my yard is mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa), which usually has seven or nine leaflets (occasional leaves will have five or eleven):
Its leaflets are not quite as teardrop-shaped, and the size difference from one end to the other is not as dramatic. The leaf margins have a few hairs, but nothing like shagbark.
Here’s an interesting one; I took it from one of my neighbor’s trees (don’t tell her):
There are five leaflets, tapered and elliptical rather than teardrop-shaped, and there are no hairs on the leaf margins. I’m pretty sure that it’s pignut hickory (C. glabra), but it’s all but impossible to distinguish from red hickory (C. ovalis), so much so that some authorities think the two should be treated as a single species. According to one source, “It is said that the two cannot be separated ‘except with completely mature fruit collected in November.’” Well, this one has quite a few nuts on it, so maybe I’ll be able to key it out then (again, if the squirrels don’t get them all first).
In the same family as the hickories (and pecan) are the walnuts. Around here, black walnut (Juglans nigra) is common. The trees are easy to spot, with their long, pinnate leaves having between 11 and 23 leaflets, and usually an overall “droopy” appearance to the foliage:
The bark is not quite as “braided” looking as hickory, but more so than ash or tuliptree:
Butternut (J. cinerea) supposedly occurs around here, but I haven’t seen it. Butternut is in serious decline due to butternut canker, which is probably why I haven’t been able to find any. Its leaves are similar, but generally fuzzier.
There are a couple of lookalike trees (or tall shrubs) to look out for as well. Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is a tall, gangly shrub that’s most often seen at the very edge of the forest:
It is easily distinguished in spring by its conical clusters of cream-colored flowers, which give way by the end of June to clusters of berries:
The berries start out green, but quickly turn a deep red and persist through the winter. Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) is very similar, but less common. As you might guess, its stems are hairy and not smooth.
The tree that most resembles black walnut is a somewhat invasive alien species, tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima)—most people just call it “ailanthus”:
It’s less droopy and usually a bit deeper green than black walnut.
Did you notice something not quite right in that last photo? The leaves at the center right are actually those of a black walnut growing next to the ailanthus:
The fruit of the ailanthus is a winged samara; it turns bright orange or red when ripe.
Of course, if you see walnuts, that’s kind of a giveaway:
Butternut fruit are more elongated, with smooth rather than pebbly skin covered in fine fuzz.
Incidentally, the name of the walnut genus, Juglans, means “Jupiter’s testicles.” I trust that I don’t need to explain how that name came about.
A close-up view of the leaves is also useful to distinguish these species. Black walnut leaflets have short petioles and finely serrated edges:
Sumac leaflets have no petioles, and somewhat more coarsely-toothed edges (sumac also exudes a very sticky, milky sap when cut):
Ailanthus leaflets have short petioles and just a few blunt teeth near the base:
You can also see on each tooth a gland that looks like a small pimple. From the underside, this is more obvious:
American hornbeam (Carpinus americana) is a tree prized for its hard, dense wood that resists splitting, perfect for tool handles. It is widespread as an understory tree in the forests around here, but for some reason I rarely see any with a trunk more than an inch or so in diameter. Its leaves are small and finely serrated:
Its fruit clusters hang down near the ends of the branches:
The related hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) also occurs here, but is less common, and I wasn’t able to find one with fruit. The leaves are all but identical, but the fruit looks a bit like those of hops (as in beer); hence, the name.
I’ve always thought that if a committee of circus clowns that tie balloon animals were tasked with designing a leaf, they’d come up with something like sassafras (Sassafras albidum):
Freshly-emerged leaves give off a pleasant, spicy scent when crushed. The wood gives off the same scent when cut, but the odor unfortunately fades pretty quickly. I have a few small pieces that came from a pallet (holding up a shipment of lumber from Horizon Wood Products in Pennsylvania).
Not all of the leaves have three lobes; some only have one side lobe, and others have none:
As was the case last month, wildflowers are few and far between. I found some American bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum):
This is one that I haven’t seen before. I’m pretty sure that it’s fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), but it has some characters that look a bit more like some related species:
It didn’t help that I was out photographing these the day after the flowers were battered by very heavy rains.
Unlike the previous two, which like the edge of the woods, the smooth oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) can be found deep in the forest:
May is, of course, peak box turtles-crossing-the-road month. Here’s one that managed to evade Chris’s car:
This individual is of the “eastern” subspecies of common box turtle (Terrapene carolina).
I mentioned last month that I wasn’t able to find a good example of a black maple (Acer nigrum). Naturally, I came across a perfect example the very next day. Unfortunately, that tree was inaccessible; I would have had to climb down a steep slope into a swamp to be able to collect a leaf. I did eventually find another one:
Notice that it looks a bit like a seriously overweight sugar maple; the lobes are broad, the sinuses between lobes are very shallow, and the two outermost lobes have all but disappeared.
I also mentioned last month that the leaf of the boxelder (A. negundo) is disturbingly similar to that of eastern poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I came across this tableau in Ottawa County, along Lake Erie in northern Ohio:
The leaf circled on the left is poison ivy; the one on the right is boxelder.
A common maple lookalike of a different sort is American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis):
In the UK, what we call sycamore is called plane or planetree, and what they call sycamore is a maple, A. pseudoplatanus. And this is why I always give the scientific names </rant>.
Even with the scientific names, it can be a puzzle. Note the sycamore maple’s scientific name, Acer pseudoplatanus: “maple that is a fake plane.” London plane is a common ornamental tree in the UK that is hybrid between American sycamore and oriental planetree (P. orientalis). It is sometimes given the scientific name Platanus orientalis var. acerifolia (“eastern plane with maple-like foliage”). No wonder people get confused.
Several Ohio trees bloom in May. The northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) is uncommon in the wild around here, but frequently planted for its abundant showy flowers:
The native range of northern catalpa is uncertain. It was once thought to be native only to a small area of the Mississippi River drainage, between Arkansas and southwestern Indiana, but recently discovered archeological evidence from West Virginia suggests that it was present in the Ohio River drainage near here prior to European settlement.
Willow flowers aren’t showy, but there are enough of them that, from a distance, they give the trees an overall yellow fuzzy appearance. Here are some black willow (Salix nigra) flowers:
In North America, most legumes (family Fabaceae) are non-woody herbs. In the tropics, however, legumes are often trees, and some of the most highly prized tropical hardwoods, such as the rosewoods (Dalbergia), are in fact legumes. There are a few North American legumes that reach tree size, but only the mesquites (Prosopis) are traded commercially to any significant extent. Legumes often have showy flowers, and the North American species with perhaps the showiest is the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia):
The bark of the black locust is pale gray with a greenish tint, arranged in thick, vertical ropes:
Most legumes have compound leaves of one sort or another. The leaves of the black locust are pinnate, having a central axis (the rachis), with elliptical leaflets along either side:
The other North American tree called locust, honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), is actually not all that closely related to the black locust. It is most easily recognized by its formidable thorns:
(You can also see a flower bud near the center of the photo; in contrast to the black locust, the honey locust’s flower doesn’t get much bigger than what you see here.)
The bark is much smoother than that of the honey locust, but the thorns give it away:
(Note that there are thornless cultivars that are planted as ornamentals, so a tree that looks like a honey locust but doesn’t have any thorns is probably one of these.)
The leaves are bipinnate, meaning that the leaves are pinnate, and the leaflets are as well:
Although it’s not too common in Ohio, the Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is also a legume, with enormous bipinnate leaves, up to three feet long. I know where there are some Kentucky coffeetrees nearby, but none with leaves close enough to the ground for me to reach, and in any case I don’t have a gray card big enough to lay one on.
There is an American legume with significant commercial value, but it’s not a North American tree:
This is the koa (Acacia koa) of Hawaiʻi. What appears to be a leaf is actually a structure that emerges as a swelling from the petiole (leaf stem), called a phyllode. Most mature koas have no true leaves at all, but in younger trees, you can usually find a few leaves in the interior of the tree, and they have the familiar legume appearance:
(I took these photos on Kauaʻi several years ago.) The closest relative of koa is Australian blackwood (A. melanoxylon), which also has phyllodes.
The eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), which we first encountered back in March, also has attractive flowers. Those are long gone by May, but the seed pods are ripening:
It is said that the young pods can be cooked and eaten whole, like snow peas, but I have never tried them. Every year, by the time I think of it, they’ve gotten too old.
Unusual for a legume, the redbud has simple, heart-shaped leaves:
Another tree of the local forests with heart-shaped leaves is American basswood (Tilia americana):
If you look closely, you can see that the leaf is somewhat asymmetrical near the base, with one side reaching further back than the other. I don’t know why this is, and not all of the leaves are like this, but it’s a feature that is shared by several other unrelated trees.
Elms have asymmetrical leaves, too. Here is a slippery elm (Ulmus rubra):
(It’s a little hard to see the asymmetry in this one.)
And an American elm (U. americana):
The leaves of the slippery elm are densely covered with fine, stiff hairs. If you place one on a tabletop and press the palm of your hand flat against it, it will stick to your hand like Velcro. American elm leaves are usually much less hairy, but can sometimes look almost identical to slippery elm leaves. The easiest way to distinguish the two is to look at the stem between the leaves. In slippery elm, this stem is hairy:
In American elm, it’s smooth:
Another tree whose leaves have this same kind of asymmetry is the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis):
Hackberry trees are easy to identify from their bark, covered with warty protuberances:
Unfortunately, the emerald ash borer has reached Athens County. I would estimate that over half of the larger ash trees are already dead or nearly so; the smaller ones seem to be hanging on a bit longer. Here’s a dead white ash in Ottawa County; you can see how the beetle larvae eat through the cambium in such a way as to cut off the tree’s nutrient supply:
The more common species here is green ash (Fraxinius pennsylvanica). The leaves are pinnate, usually with seven leaflets:
The leaves of white ash (F. americana) are very similar:
With a leaf in hand, however, there is a simple way to tell the two apart. If you look closely at the base of the petiole, where the leaf attaches to the branch, the cross section of the green ash’s leaf is roughly circular, with a small cutout on top:
While the white ash’s petiole has a much deeper groove:
Rare in Athens County, but more common to the north, the leaves of the black ash (F. nigra) usually have nine leaflets (sometimes more), rather than seven. There is a large tree on our land in Meigs County that I think is a black ash, but the tree is so tall that I can’t get a decent look at the leaves, even through binoculars.
The seeds of both local ashes are encased in samaras that remind me of surfboards:
By May, the forest floor is pretty dark, so there’s not that much going on as far as wildflowers are concerned. Some species occur around forest edges, where there’s more light. One of the common May wildflowers in my yard (but strangely absent in other places that would seem to be appropriate for them) is foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis):
The flowers that we usually think of as roses are all Asian imports, but there are a few native species, like this Carolina rose (Rosa carolina):
Venturing a bit deeper into the shade, we can find touch-me-nots, especially common along roadside ditches. This one is a pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida):
The name comes from the fact that the ripe seed pods are spring-loaded. If you squeeze one, it explodes, shooting seeds in all directions. (It’s a good practical joke when you’re out in the woods with someone who isn’t familiar with the flora: “Here, squeeze this between your fingers.”)
This one is limestone bittercress (Cardamine douglassii):
It also goes by the name “purple cress,” but there are a gazillion other flowers that also go by that name.
In the deepest shade, we can find Canadian wildginger (Asarum canadense, unrelated to culinary ginger):
You have to get down on your knees to see the flowers, though; they’re hidden below the leaves and practically buried in the leaf litter:
One of the most attractive spring/summer ferns is the northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum):
There is also a more southerly species called common maidenhair, which looks quite different, but I wasn’t able to find one. Maybe later this year.
When you’re walking in the woods, it pays to look down, and not only for wildflowers and ferns. I almost stepped on this (Odocoileus virginianus) when I went to fill the bird feeders in my backyard a few weeks ago:
Despite sharing a border with Canada, Ohio has a relatively mild climate, and spring usually arrives early. By April, all of the trees are at least beginning to leaf out. One of the earliest here is the yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava). Its digitate leaves unfurl at a time when most of the other trees are still in bud:
The flowers appear later in the month, in erect clusters:
Yellow buckeye occurs only in the southern portion of the state, mostly along the Ohio River. Brutus Buckeye, on the other hand, is the nut of an Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra). The leaves are very similar, and the flowers have the same general structure but different proportions:
The bark of yellow buckeye is fairly smooth, with a sort of gravelly texture:
Both buckeyes are generally found close to water.
A well-known flowering tree that blooms in April is flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). Most people recognize the four large white bracts that surround each cluster of flowers, but few notice the tiny yellow-green flowers themselves:
An unusual subtropical species that occurs as an understory tree in southern Ohio is the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Its flowers are maroon/brown, hang straight down, and have a scent reminiscent of rotting flesh:
Given their aroma, it’s not surprising that pawpaws are pollinated by flies.
The pawpaw is the host plant for the zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus):
And, for no other reason than that I had my camera in hand when I saw them together, here are three different swallowtails; the top one is an eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and the middle one is a spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus):
A tree that any woodworker can appreciate is black cherry (Prunus serotina). Its flowers are distinctive:
Another sign of black cherry is the presence of eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) nests:
Black cherry appears to be their favorite food, although they are occasionally found on apples as well.
Rounding out the commonly occurring conifers in this neck of the woods is eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), easily recognized by its short needles and small cones:
Eastern hemlock occurs in the eastern half of Ohio; the trees are found almost exclusively on north-facing slopes and in deep, cool ravines.
Since the leaves have finally arrived, let’s look at them in more detail. First up are the maples. Red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves have irregularly toothed edges, and red petioles (leaf stems):
Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is likewise heavily toothed, and the petioles are usually green, but may be red as well:
The keys to distinguishing the two species are:
The sinuses (spaces between the lobes) in red maple are V-shaped, while those of silver maple are U-shaped.
The center lobe of the silver maple leaf is longer than half the overall length of the leaf, while that of the red maple is about half the length or less.
The leaves of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) have smooth edges:
This is, of course, the “classic” maple leaf, as depicted on the Canadian flag. Most of the sugar maples around here have leaves where the three main lobes are fairly broad, and the two outermost lobes are reduced to near nothing. In these respects, they approach the proportions of the leaves of black maple (Acer nigrum). The variation in both of these two species has led some botanists to consider the two to be extremes of a single species. I was not able to find a good example of a black maple leaf, but this variant of a sugar maple leaf is closer to what a black maple’s leaves look like:
Surprisingly, these two sugar maple leaves came from different branches of a single tree.
Our last maple, boxelder (Acer negundo) doesn’t look like a maple at all, and in fact its leaves are disturbingly similar to those of poison ivy:
Both red and silver maples set seed early:
Red maple (on the left) has the smallest samaras, while silver maple has the largest. Both sugar/black maple and boxelder are in between in size, and don’t ripen until mid-May.
Another species that leafs out early is tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera). The shape of its leaves is unique:
Tuliptree also has interesting flowers, but since they’re all at the tops of the trees, I wasn’t able to get any decent photos.
I mentioned last month that April was the month for wildflowers; here are a few, starting with white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum):
Trilliums were especially abundant this year.
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) bloom for only a short time in the middle of April, and by the end of the month, all traces of the plant (including the leaves) are gone:
(But why are the Dutchmen always hanging upside down?)
Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) normally has white flowers, but they’re occasionally blue:
We spent a weekend at the end of April in Adams and Scioto counties, in south-central Ohio. There are a number of wildflowers there that are difficult to find elsewhere in the state, such as these yellow lady’s slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum):