Category Archives: Trees

Winter Tree ID: Yellow Birch

Photo of Yellow Birch bark

The variably colored -- bronze to yellow-brown to silvery-gray to tan -- exfoliating bark of Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) is a reliable field mark that allows most individuals to be identified with ease. Exceptions include younger trees who have darker bark that doesn't peel readily, and older trees who may lose their peeling bark and become scaly.

Here are a few additional field marks to clinch the identification of Yellow Birch in the white season:

  • twigs have alternating buds, and are slender and sparsely hairy (look closely at new growth for hairs; the twigs of Cherry Birch are hairless)
  • mature trees have male flower catkins in small clusters at the tips of some twigs
  • chewed twigs taste of wintergreen (like Cherry Birch, and similar to the leaves of Eastern Spicy-wintergreen)

Yellow Birch lives in forests throughout New England. I often find this species growing in moist soils, near rivers and streams. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

New Moon Challenge: Bark Moon

Today is the new moon and thus the end of my Bark Moon Challenge. Nearly every day since the last new moon, I observed and photographed the bark of various trees. In the following bark gallery, most species are represented by two or three photos to show differences in younger vs. older trees. Somewhere in the mix, see if you can find Asian Bittersweet, a yellow fire hydrant, and an upside-down heart. If you were a tree, what kind of bark would you have? (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Winter Tree ID: Cherry Birch

The phrase "birch bark" likely brings to mind white sheets of loose bark, like that found on Paper Birch, but some birches have outer bark that is neither white, nor exfoliating.

Photo of Cherry Birch bark

Cherry Birch (Betula lenta) has dark bark (the species is also known as Black Birch), accented with horizontal dash-like lenticels, or breathing holes, through which the tree can exchange gases with the atmosphere. Young trees (above) start out with mostly smooth bark, which over time develops vertical cracks. These stretch marks become more numerous as trees age, eventually leading to bark that breaks into thick plates (see the progression in photos below).

Photo of Cherry Birch buds

In winter, aside from examining the bark, look up to see the twig pattern of Cherry Birch. Notice how on older twigs the leaf buds occur atop a stack of leaf scars that form a sort of spur branch. If you find a tree with twigs you can reach, you might try nibbling on one to enjoy the wintergreen flavored inner-bark.

Note that Yellow Birch (B. alleghaniensis) has similarly flavored inner-bark but can typically be told from Cherry Birch by the presence of exfoliating, lighter-colored outer-bark (though young trees can be similarly dark-barked). Luckily, a twig of either species makes a pleasing trail nibble.

Finally, look at enough Cherry Birch trees and you might find one that is host to Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), as shown below. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Meet the Pines: Jack Pine

When I ventured to eastern Maine last month to see a rare sparrow, a roadside pine in the town of Winter Harbor caught my attention. I'd long heard about Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), but until that moment had never introduced myself. Native to northern New England, Jack Pine has two short needle-leaves per bundle and distinctly asymmetrical seed cones -- no other New England pine shares this combination of characteristics. The following photos show various parts of the tree, including the paired needles (with a comparison shot of the needles of Scotch Pine), resinous winter buds, old male pollen cones, seed cones of various ages, and bark. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Not sure how to identify the other pines of New England? Check out my previous posts covering Eastern White, Pitch, Red, and Scotch Pine.

Fall Tree ID: American Larch

Photo of American Larch needles in fall

American Larch (Larix laricina) is New England's only deciduous, native conifer. Pines (Pinus sp.), Spruces (Picea sp.), Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), and other conifers are evergreen, holding their needles for two or more seasons, only shedding them all in death. American Larch, also known as Tamarack, has a different life strategy. In fall, Tamarack's needles all turn gold and drop. Trees then stand leafless (appearing to some as dead) until soft, blue-green needle bundles emerge at the start of the next green season. These needle-leaves remain soft throughout the green season. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)