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East Coast Trees

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The first beech I ever met was in a graveyard.

Graveyards seemed like a perfectly natural place to admire plants; one of my best friends in high school had a house on a street that dead-ended into an old graveyard, the type with marble obelisks and gravestones like stone boxes that covered the entire grave, like a hard cold twin bed. It also had some of the oldest trees in town, including a copper beech, the type with purple leaves, and the broad statuesque outline of all beeches. Since we were both plant nuts, and it was a pleasant place, we went there often.

I was recently on a visit to the east coast, and there, in another graveyard, I was united with my friend the beech, also known as Fagus sylvatica. While I don’t recall seeing beeches on the west coast (tell me if you know of some), beeches aren’t really an east-coast tree either: they’re European.Even in winter, you can tell it by its elephantine skin, and the prominent ribs in its leaves.

In fact, you can identify lots of trees simply by their bark and their shape. My horticulture teacher says that in cold states in the midwest, universities offer tree-identification classes for dormant trees. I bet you could get to know a lot about trees that way.

This one’s easy: it’s another European tree, but it’s planted all over this country by various civic bodies. The ones out west never seem to get the girth of the ones back east, though:

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But a plane tree (Platanus occidentalis), or sycamore as USians usually call them, always has the distinctive mottled bark, shed in little plates. In fall, it has the stickery seed-balls, too, a reminder for some of us that it’s time to put on shoes.

Another east-coast tree with really distinctive bark is, of course, the paper-bark birch, Betula papyrifera, a true east-coast native (although it is also native to pretty much all of Canada, and part of Alaska). The furthest south these birches usually travel is to Washington D.C., but there’s a stand in Boulder, Colorado which is believed to be the last remains of a Pleistocene forest.

My own past with paperbark birches includes the guilty pleasure of peeling off the already-peeling bark, and the righteous indignation I felt toward people who carved into the white soft new bark, leaving roughened dark initials for all time. These are also the trees birch-bark canoes were made from (perhaps people are still making them; I haven’t seen any lately).

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 (I did try rotate this photo and the sycamore-bark one, but the rotation doesn’t seem to stay, even though I save the modified photo. Any technical input welcome; it’s a bit embarrassing to put up my trees sideways. After all, I know about gravitropism now.)

The final tree I had a reunion with is a real east-coast tree, the pin oak, Quercus palustris. Now I know why I saw so many of them in my childhood: they are adaptable trees which do fine in wet ground (one of their names is Spanish swamp oak) and drought, and can also tolerate poor soils. They’re the third most common street tree in New York City, which proves they’re resilient. I’m not sure whether the ones I saw from my bedroom window, growing up, were wild or planted, but I can see why they were chosen to be the backbone of suburban trees. I used to love watching the flying squirrels leap from tree to tree; it always seemed they couldn’t possibly make it – then they did. Trapeze artists.

The bark is something you can never forget:

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But I’d always been mystified by the common name, “pin oak”. When I was younger, I vaguely thought it was because the leaves were so deeply incised and pointy (leaves that, in several millenia, might evolve to compound leaflets). Then, on my walk through the graveyard, that I had finally figured out the reason for the name “pin oak”. I picked up some acorns, and lo and behold, they had tiny pins in the bottom, like a little top.

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But it turns out neither reason is right. Pin oaks have small, unleaved branchlets that stick out from the main branch like little pins bristling out of a pincushion, and that’s what gives them their common name.

And while I was looking that up, I found out something else: pin oaks are a part of the black oak group, the same group as the black oaks I can look at from my west-coast window. You’re never as far from home as you think you are.

{ 13 comments… add one }

  • jodi (bloomingwriter) January 3, 2010, 4:26 pm

    What an excellent post this is! Trees are so wonderful, in winter or summer, and it can be tricky identifying them in winter from bark or twigs. This is a very useful post. Oh, and I like graveyards for their plants, too…

  • Daffodil Planter January 3, 2010, 6:12 pm

    Thanks for the trip, back East and in time. Altogether lovely. I am still disappointed about the source of the name Pin Oak. I was so enjoying that pointed acorn….

  • lostlandscape(James) January 3, 2010, 8:17 pm

    I enjoyed your encounter with trees at eye-level. It seems to personalize them somehow. About your rare Betula horizontalis, there’s actually a Vancouver photographer who presents his enormous tree prints upside-down. Very striking.

  • Susie January 3, 2010, 9:58 pm

    Thanks for the tree visit. I love bark, another notable that people forget about because they mostly focus on the bloom is the lovely bark of the Crape Myrtle, not sure their origin or if they have them on the east coast though…

  • Charlotte January 4, 2010, 12:13 am

    Lovely post Pomona – trees are so magnificent – will be featuring them in my last day of Christmas! Happy New Year.

  • Sylvia (England) January 4, 2010, 4:42 am

    Pomona, I am looking at some beautiful beeches outside the office, these are lovely tall majestic trees. Beech is amazing, tall trees or trimmed hedges all from the same plant! I love beech hedges, we have quite a few around here and they look good in winter with their brown leaves on. I don’t have room (or allowed) a beech hedge but I have 3 around my compost bin in the side garden (by a road) which I will cut to make a arc.

    Wishing you a very happy New Year. Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere January 4, 2010, 4:43 pm

    Jody, glad to encounter another graveyard-lover. I think I come by it honestly; my mother as a child was asked to entertain an out-of-town guest and took her to the graveyard. Make sense to me.

    DP, I was really disappointed about the pinned acorns, too. Thought I’d solved the mystery.

    James, thanks for telling me about the Vancouver photographer. Of course, I should have thought: all technical errors are potentially art. Nice to know there’s a place for my Betula horizontalis.

    Susie, I don’t know if they have crape myrtle back east but they do have them here and I will check out their bark next time I see one. You’re right, bark can be amazing, and we often don’t notice it for looking at the more spectacular items.

    Charlotte, I’ll look forward to your tree post, bet you have some exotics for us.

    Sylvia, I do so envy England its beeches, how lucky you are to have enough to have hedges too. Love the idea of your compost arc. A good new year to you as well, and to all who read this.

  • Meredith January 5, 2010, 1:02 pm

    I thrill to the paperbark birches, probably partly because they’re so exotic to me, and so lovely in the landscape. And I’m in agreement with Susie. Some of the loveliest bark around here is on the crepe myrtle.

    Don’t you just love how you can see all the details of moss and lichen and age and patterns on the bark during this season? It has its own stark beauty.

    Wonderful post!

  • Steve January 6, 2010, 12:37 am

    Pomona, there are abundant Beeches out West. I know, because I have planted them! A recent cultivar and one I have played a bit of Johnny Appleseed with is a Fagus that has pink variegation on its somewhat copper leaves. Originally, no doubt, a Copper Beech clone, this one got very popular with my help in Reno, Nevada. They grow fast and – so far anyway – their wood seems hard enough to warrant planting in windy areas – always a concern in Reno. As well, some of the Weeping Species of Beexhes have made huge inroads in parks. Check out the Portland Rose Garden – I have one featured in my own blog – where one humongous Weeping Beech dominates the entire garden. By the way, those little acorns bite back, lol. Those “pins” can hurt!

  • Pomona Belvedere January 7, 2010, 9:09 pm

    Meredith, I agree with you about the bark and lichen, and I think “stark beauty” is a good phrase for it.

    Steve, should have known you’d have a smart answer! Good news, and who knew beeches would grow well in desert conditions? The pink variegated copper beech sounds like a sight worth seeing.

  • Kathy February 9, 2010, 2:02 pm

    I live in a Mid-Atlantic state, just a 20 min. trip to the ocean. We have many crape myrtle here and all along the southern states. I planted one in my small garden about five years ago and it has done very well; it was almost 10 ft. until our last blizzard. There are several branches now on the ground and I have no idea if it will survive this winter. We are expecting another possible foot of snow tomorrow on top of the two feet already on the ground. As much as I look forward to spring, I am also dreading the lost I may have of many plants. But with your lovely tree post, I now have several trees to ponder on to replace the three cedars I lost with this storm.

  • Pomona Belvedere February 11, 2010, 11:02 am

    Kathy, I’m really glad this post is helpful to you in your tree loss, I hadn’t even considered it could be used that way. I’m sorry about your cedars, they are also great trees. And I hope the crape myrtle makes it…

  • Joe September 11, 2012, 7:58 am

    Pin Oak is so called because the wood was used to make ‘pins’ or wooden nails for fixing joints in oak timbers. Iron nails cannot be used because they stain the wood blue – reacts with the tannin. Apparently this used to be quite an industry way back.

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