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:
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).
(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:
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.
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.