Category Archives: Trees

Tree ID: American Hornbeam

Photo of American Hornbeam bark

American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) is a small, slow-growing tree of moist woodlands. Another common name for this species is musclewood, appropriate given that the trunks (and large branches) resemble taut muscles and that the wood is incredibly dense and durable. Think of Carpinus caroliniana as a body-builder of the understory.

American Hornbeam is a member of the Birch family (Betulaceae), and like most members of that family has leaf margins that are double-toothed (that is, with a series of smaller teeth occurring between larger teeth). Mature trees flower in the spring and by fall bear ripe clusters of winged nutlets.

At times, I've confused the common name of this tree with that of Hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), a related small tree with similarly dense wood, but vastly different bark that consists of thin, exfoliating strips (see labeled photo below). Hopefully, you'll have an easier time keeping them straight.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

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.