The weather this past March was kind of wacky. It didn’t exactly come in like a lion, nor did it go out like a lamb. Instead, it alternated on a weekly basis between much colder than normal and much warmer than normal. The net result is that the plants got pretty confused; the daffodils were very unhappy, and it looks like we’re probably going to have a poor crop of peaches and apples this year.
Some people have asked exactly where I walk when I walk in the woods, so here’s a map of Ohio (“The Squarish State”) showing the location of Athens County:
For those of you who either flunked geography or are from outside the U.S., here’s a Google Earth view:
And here’s a closer look at my neighborhood (also via Google Earth):
As you can see, when I say I find things walking around my yard, I’m really in the middle of the forest.
Many of the trees have begun flowering in March. Usually, the first trees to complete the cycle and drop their seeds are elms, followed closely by red and silver maples:
This is an American elm (Ulnus americana), which is a tree of riverside habitats (or city streets, as this one is). The other common species is slippery elm (U. rubra), which is more of an upland species. Large elm trees are rare in the wild in the eastern U.S. and Canada these days, having been devastated by Dutch elm disease, but can still be found where they’re under a watchful eye.
Most forest trees have small, inconspicuous flowers. One tree whose flowers are small but certainly not inconspicuous is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis):
Redbuds begin to bloom right around the end of March here.
I mentioned Virginia pine last month. Here’s an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). White pine is fairly easy to identify: The needles are long and very fine, in bunches of (usually) five. (Most pines have needles in bunches of two or three.) The foliage is slightly blue-green, and the fineness of the needles gives the tree an overall “soft” appearance.
Woodland wildflowers are starting to show themselves, although the non-native species are still outnumbering the natives. Here’s birdeye or field speedwell (Veronica persica), native to Eurasia:
If you saw these in the woods, you might pass them off as common dandelions, but they’re not:
These are coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), also Eurasian in origin. Coltsfoot tea has been used in traditional medicine as a cough treatment, but it apparently can cause serious liver damage. Life is full of little tradeoffs….
Coltsfoot is distinguished from dandelion by growing in areas that are heavily shaded by trees in summer, blooming before any foliage is visible, and having reddish scales on the flower stalks (dandelion flower stalks are smooth). Here’s an actual dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) for comparison:
Some of the earliest blooming native wildflowers are eastern spring beauties (Claytonia virginica):
Also blooming towards the end of March are cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata):
and azure bluet (Houstonia caerulea):
You might find these odd-looking things sticking straight up out of the ground in wet spots in the woods; they’re the fruiting bodies of sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis):
The fern gets its name from being very sensitive to cold, dying back at the slightest touch of frost. The leaves will come up later in the spring, after any risk of frost is past.
It’s too early for most mushrooms and other fungi, but a few, such as this turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) are present year-round:
This fungus is one of the more common causes of spalting in wood.
Finally, the March entry in our sedge-of-the-month club is Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica):
It looks like a small tuft of grass, although the flowers are distinctive:
These are a bit past their prime; you can find better images online. Pennsylvania sedge is common in woodland where the soil is relatively dry.
April is the month for wildflowers around here, so take a walk in the woods, see what you can find, and next month we can compare notes.
Since this blog seems to be transitioning from all-workbenches-all-the-time to all-stools-all-the-time, I thought I’d pass along something I came across recently. The Batonga people, of present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia, have traditionally carved stools out of single log sections. The stools range from very simple:
to much more elaborate:
They sometimes incorporate a carrying handle, as the latter image shows.
Designs vary quite a bit, although there are some recurring themes. I do wonder about the long-term viability of a stool whose supports incorporate a sharp, cross-grain right angle:
Then again, the people who carve and use these probably don’t have BMI levels in quite the same range as our own.
If you do a search on “batonga stool” you’ll find quite a few for sale.
I love the smell of ponderosa pine in the morning…. Smells like…vanilla.
–Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, Apocalypse Now (director’s cut)
We’re going to travel a little further afield today, but first, a correction: Last time, I posted a photo that I claimed was of a tuliptree, but as A Riving Home pointed out in the comments, the photo was actually of a mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa). What happened was that I had taken photos of both, but at the last minute decided to save the hickory for a later post, and then managed to mix up the photos. Here’s the real tuliptree:
(The description in the previous post still applies.)
In February, the forest begins to show signs of renewed life. The earliest migrant bird, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), has arrived, and the resident species are singing their hearts out. There’s some color seeping into the grayness of the landscape, and on a warm, rainy night, you might hear a chorus of spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). By the end of the month, some of the trees have begun blooming. The most noticeable of these are red maple (Acer rubrum), with its deep red flowers, and silver maple (A. saccharinum) with dull orange flowers. The pinkish flowers of American (Ulmus americana) and slippery (U. rubra) elms quickly give way to pale green flying saucer-shaped seeds.
Some shrubs begin leafing out in February as well, but these are nearly all non-native plants, such as Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). The native plants know that there’s still a good chance for a hard frost, so they wait.
We begin in an area of bottomland near the Hocking River here in Athens County, where there are a couple of species that dominate. First, one of the easiest of all trees to identify:
The patchy, ghostly white and gray bark of the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) always stands out against the gray backdrop of the winter forest. Close up, the lower portions of the trunk are covered in numerous small, brown scales:
The other dominant bottomland tree in this area is the often huge eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides):
Its bark is deeply and coarsely furrowed, with the ridges being more or less flat-topped.
Both of these trees can be found further up slope, but it’s always a sign of abundant ground water when they are. In particular, you can find these trees along ravines and exposed layers of porous shale, where the soil is always wet. These layers of shale correspond with coal seams, in this area the Middle Kittanning or “No. 6” coal.
One of the most important trees to a woodworker is black cherry (Prunus serotina):
Further north and at higher elevations, black cherry can be the dominant species in a forest, but around here it’s mainly found as scattered individual trees, usually but not always near water. The bark is dark, brownish-black, and broken up into oval scales that curl up around the edges. Another feature of cherry trees is that they are almost never straight. This is because as the tree grows, the main stem has a pair of terminal buds, rather than just one, and one of the buds “wins,” depending on the lighting conditions. Thus, each year, the tree heads off in a slightly different direction.
We’re going to move up slope now, to some forested land that my wife and I own just over the county line, in Meigs County. A close relative of the eastern cottonwood is bigtooth aspen (P. grandidentata):
The bark is a medium gray, sometimes with a gold sheen, and interrupted by a combination of horizontal ridges and vertical splits. Further north, quaking aspen (P. tremuloides) replaces bigtooth aspen; its bark is similar but whiter.
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is characterized by smooth, nearly featureless gray bark:
There are several species of hickory in the forests, most of them difficult to tell apart. The aforementioned mockernut hickory is fairly common:
The bark has the sort of criss-crossing X ridge structure that many of trees in the forest have, but in the hickories, these ridges tend to look as if they are strands braided together. This is more apparent in a young tree:
One species of hickory that is not hard to identify is shagbark hickory (C. ovata). Although the braided pattern is obscured, you can still kind of see it if you squint; it tends to be more obvious near the base of the trunk:
Pines are tricky. A big part of that is that people plant a lot of pine trees, and the species that they plant are very often not native to the area, so you never know what you’re looking at. Around here, only one native species of pine, Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), is common:
It’s characterized by relatively short (about 2″/5 cm) paired needles that are flattened and somewhat crescent-shaped in cross section, and usually twisted.
The other pines that occur in the area all have much longer needles: eastern white pine (P. strobus), pitch pine (P. rigida) and shortleaf pine (P. echinata). It generally takes a combination of characters (number of needles in a bundle, shape and size of the cone, etc.) to distinguish these species.
Ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa), a species of the western half of the United States, really does smell like vanilla, although you have to get your nose right up to the bark to notice it. You won’t find any ponderosa pines growing around here, but you might nevertheless find it at your local home center; the clear pine boards are often cut from that species.
Not everything in the forest is a tree, of course. There is a ground-hugging plant that looks strangely like a conifer of some kind:
And one of its common names is indeed “groundcedar.” In fact, though, it’s not a conifer at all, but rather a member of an ancient lineage of plants, Lycopodiophyta, and not closely related to any of the more typical plants. This one is the fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum).
Sedges (Carex sp.) are a rather overwhelming group of grass-like plants; there are about 2000 species worldwide, and 140 just in Ohio. One of the most common is eastern woodland sedge (C. blanda):
There are many species of ferns in the forest, but these two are the only ones that are likely to remain green in winter:
The marginal woodfern (Dryopteris marginalis), on the left, may die back to the ground in very cold winters, but the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), on the right, stays green regardless.
The marginal woodfern can be identified by the fact that the sori (the spore-bearing structures on the undersides of the fronds) are located along the margins of the pinnules:
It’s still a bit early for wildflowers, although I did find the leaves of this eastern waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) poking through the leaf litter:
The only blooming flower that I found (actually, I think my wife found it) was this non-native purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum):
I was flattening some panels by hand the other day (too wide for my machines), and that got me thinking about plane blade camber. If you search online for discussions of blade camber, you’ll find that a great many electrons have been spilled on the topic. One common thread in these discussions is frequent confusion over the fact that a bevel-up blade requires more camber (i.e., the center of the blade needs to protrude further beyond its corners) than a bevel-down blade to have the same effect.
On the one hand, everyone seems comfortable with the notion that as the blade’s bedding angle decreases, the effective radius of curvature of its edge increases. This is easy to see. First, find yourself a thin disk (e.g., a CD or DVD) and hold it up at arm’s length:
When the disc is perpendicular to your line of sight, the apparent radius of its lower edge is equal to its actual radius (2-3/8″ in the case of a CD/DVD). But start tilting it from perpendicular, and the curve flattens; its apparent radius increases:
Tilt even more, and it keeps increasing:
From the point of view of the wood fiber that’s about to have its head chopped off by an oncoming blade, the greater the tilt from vertical, the greater the apparent radius of curvature, and consequently the less the depth of cut at the center of the blade. And since the blade in a bevel-up plane is tilted further from perpendicular, its apparent radius of curvature is larger than that of the bevel-down blade unless we make its actual radius of curvature smaller (i.e., increase its camber). Easy.
On the other hand, we’ve also all seen diagrams of bevel-down vs. bevel-up planes seated on their respective frogs:
The resulting cutting geometries in the two cases are identical. The blade’s cutting edge comprises two intersecting planes, one formed by the back surface, and the other by the bevel. The only difference between the two configurations is that these two planar surfaces switch roles.
This is where I think some people get confused. If the two setups are equivalent, why can’t we measure the blade camber in the same way with both? In truth, we sort of can, but there’s a difference between the bevel in a cambered blade vs. a straight blade. When the camber is small, that difference is also small (and negligible), but with a strongly cambered blade, such as one we might use in a fore or scrub plane, it’s not. With a cambered blade, the bevel is not planar. In fact, the bevel is a section of the surface of a cone:
That’s where the equivalence breaks down, as it’s no longer possible to directly superimpose the cutting geometry of a bevel-up blade onto that of a bevel-down blade. And so we go back to always measuring the camber with respect to the back of the blade.
Anyway, is any of this important? Only to the extent that you get a feel for how the different parameters interact, so that you’ll know how much to camber your blade to achieve a given depth of cut.
I’m avoiding the math here, because it’s been covered before (such as here and here), but I did put together a little online app that lets you plug in some numbers to see how this all works. Here’s a screenshot:
You can find the app here. To use it, enter your bed angle and blade width, and one of the other three values. The app will compute the other two corresponding values for you, dynamically updating the display as you modify the values. The bed angle is in degrees; the other values can be in whatever length units you choose, as long as you’re consistent (inches, millimetres, furlongs, it makes no difference).
Now, I know that someone is going to read this and then get out their micrometer and measure their blade camber to three decimal places, to which I say,
STOP!! PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE PLANE!!
The point of the app is intuition, not prescription. The precise value of camber that you end up with is largely irrelevant, as long as you’re in the ballpark.
In case you haven’t looked out your windows for a while, it’s the middle of winter. (Californians and South Floridians are exempted from noticing.) Everything is gray, the trees have no leaves, and no one in their right mind would go out into the woods to identify trees this time of year, right?
So what are we waiting for? Let’s go! I live in Athens County in southeastern Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills, so we’ll begin by taking a look at some of the trees in my yard.
First, I have to admit that I lied about the trees having no leaves. A few kinds of trees do hang onto their leaves until very late in the winter, which makes them easy to pick out. I managed to get three species into one photo:
In late fall and winter, the leaves of red oak (Quercus rubra) are a rich brown. White oak (Q. alba) has leaves that are paler and grayer. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) has very pale, almost yellow leaves, and as you walk through the forest in winter, the sapling beech trees are obvious.
The overall shape of a tree can be useful in identification, but it can also be misleading. A tree growing in isolation (in the middle of a pasture, say) has a characteristic shape that varies quite a bit from one species to another. Forest trees, on the other hand, are much more similar in shape. For that reason, features of the bark and morphological details (e.g., branching pattern) are much more useful in the forest.
Red oaks are some of the most common trees in my yard, and they invariably have a bark pattern that is both unique and easy to spot:
The bark consists of a smooth(ish) medium gray (sometimes slightly brownish) ground interrupted by ragged vertical grooves that are considerably darker. On larger individuals, the bark near ground level may be much rougher than this, but you can always find this pattern if you look at the upper limbs.
The bark of white oaks is very different, a very pale gray (hence the name), flaking off in scales:
That particular tree has relatively small scales; here’s another (about the same diameter) whose scales are much larger:
Both red and white oaks are generalists, found in a variety of habitats. There are many other species of oak in Ohio, but most of them have specific habitat requirements. One of these specialists is the chestnut oak (Q. montana):
Chestnut oaks are found only near ridge tops, most often on the south-facing slope (which happens to be exactly where I live). The bark of the chestnut oak is dark and deeply furrowed. If you picture a cross section of the tree, the profile of the bark ridges would look something like the teeth of a gear.
Another very common tree in the yard is the red maple (Acer rubrum):
Red maples have a split personality; the bark of young trees is pale gray and very smooth (much like American beech, which I don’t have a photo of here). As the tree grows, the bark starts to split and darken, becoming much craggier. In a large tree, there is no trace of the smooth gray on the bark near the ground, but you can still find it if you look up. The bark of the silver maple (A. saccarhinum) is similar, but silver maples are restricted primarily to bottomland, where the soil contains more moisture. (Red maples, like the two oaks above, are generalists.)
Sugar maple (A. saccharum) has a medium gray bark that flakes off to expose an orangeish background:
The appearance of the bark is intermediate in all respects, so other than the orange background (which you sometimes see on white oaks, too) there really isn’t any one thing that tells you it’s a sugar maple. It’s kind of a process of elimination.
By the way, late January/early February is the time of year in this part of the country to tap sugar maples for making syrup and sugar. The best sap flow occurs when temperatures cycle above freezing during the day and back down below freezing at night. The prime tapping season is progressively later as you move north, as late as April in southern Canada.
There are two species of ash common in this area, white ash (Fraxinus americana), and green ash (F. pennsylvanica). (To confuse matters, green ash is also known as red ash.) White and green ash have very similar bark, fairly pale overall and consisting of narrow vertical ridges that often cross over each other, forming “X” patterns:
I believe that this example is a green ash, but I can’t be sure without getting a close look at the leaves, and unfortunately the lowest leaves on this tree are about 50 ft. above the ground.
As you may be aware, most of the North American ash species are seriously threatened by the introduced emerald ash borer. It is expected that over 99% of green ash trees will die over the next several years. White ash fares slightly better, but populations of both species (along with black ash, a more northerly species) are being devastated. A small number of individual trees appear to be resistant to the borer, so there is some hope that they will eventually be able to recover.
One of the most important forest trees in this area (Liriodendron tulipfera) goes by many names. The name preferred by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is “tuliptree,” but woodworkers know it as “yellow poplar,” “tulip poplar,” or even just “poplar” (which is especially misleading, as it is unrelated to true poplars):
(EDIT: As pointed out by “A Riving Home” in the comments, this is actually a mockernut hickory. I had taken photos of both it and the tuliptree, then decided to save the hickory for a later post, and managed to get the two photos mixed up.)
The bark of tuliptree is much like that of ash, with narrow vertical ridges, but is overall quite a bit darker, sometimes appearing almost black. This particular individual has a lot of the same sort of “X” pattern that ashes do, but not all tuliptrees show this. Tuliptree is one species where the overall shape of the tree is useful in identification, even in the forest: tuliptrees are arrow-straight (usually the straightest, most vertical trees in the forest), and the branches are restricted to the very top of the tree.
Here’s another tuliptree, with a big problem:
During the summer of 2015, we had a spell of very hot, dry weather. Many of the tuliptrees in this area and neighboring West Virginia were weakened and eventually killed by the drought. Some of these dead trees are now exhibiting this odd pattern of flaking bark.
Not every tree loses its leaves in the winter, of course. American holly (Ilex opaca) is primarily a tree of the southeastern forests, but there are a few scattered small hollies in my yard, such as this one, which is about 8 ft. tall:
I haven’t been able to figure out whether these individuals are native, at the very northern limit of their range, or escaped from cultivation. There is no record for Athens County for the species in the USDA PLANTS database, but there are records from some of the surrounding counties.
Incidentally, a good place to see much larger (and definitely native) American holly is along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland.
The leaves of American holly make it easy to identify:
The leaves are a dark, shiny green, about two inches long and with very sharp spines along the margins.
Another bit of green in the yard comes from a scattering of eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana):
Redcedars are normally more conically shaped than this, but this is what happens when your yard is overrun by deer. As the scientific name suggests, redcedar is not actually a cedar, but a kind of juniper. The wood that is sold as “aromatic cedar” comes from this species.
Interestingly, redcedars have two kinds of foliage. On the upper part of the tree, the foliage has a typical juniper-like appearance:
But seedlings and the lower portion of trees that have been ravaged by deer have a much different foliage:
This juvenile foliage is quite prickly, and is an apparent attempt by the tree to dissuade browsers. It seems to work for the seedlings, which don’t get munched too badly, but it obviously doesn’t for the larger trees.
In addition to the large trees that make up the forest canopy, there are smaller trees that form the understory. One of the more common understory trees in the yard is flowering dogwood (Cornus florida):
The trees are small, usually less than 6″ in diameter, and the bark is broken up into numerous small roundish plates. But the easiest way to identify a dogwood in winter is the flower buds, which are usually plentiful and have a characteristic turban-like shape:
That’s it for now. I hope this inspires you to take a walk in your own woods. (Did I mention that there’s going to be a test later?) If you do, a couple of cautions:
Remember that poison ivy (poison oak in the west) is plentiful in the forest, especially around openings, and like the trees, sheds its leaves. Be careful what you touch.
Before walking in the forest, check with your state wildlife agency to determine the deer season dates for your area, and be sure to wear appropriate orange clothing if there is any chance of being in the same forest at the same time as a hunter.