Tree of the Week for April 11th-18th, 2021: Celtis occidentalis

As one walks through the low, flat forests of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, there’s one tree that repeats itself over and over again, omnipresent in the muddy woods near the region’s many slow, languid rivers. It’s not a tree that’s ever achieved great fame: it grows singly, intermixed with other trees, and never in pure stands; it has no spectacular spring flowers or glorious autumn color; its fruits are edible, but are notably difficult to harvest and process; it gives very mixed blessings when planted as a street tree; it can be something of a weed in cities and gardens; and its wood is utilitarian rather than beautiful. Even the French voyageurs who explored, canoed, traded, and lived all throughout the range of this tree gave it no distinctive name, but referred to it in their writings as le bois inconnu – “the unknown tree”. But this tree, the American hackberry, is more important in the midwestern forest than many trees with loftier reputations, and deserves to be better known. Not only is it a wildly successful native tree that one will be sure to have many encounters with, but it’s a friend and benefactor to all varieties of wildlife, and is not without its uses to humans as well. Common – in every sense of the word – kind, gregarious, and fruitful, it is a cheery peasant tree, and the world would be as poor without such trees as it would without more noble species.

American hackberry, Celtis occidentalis

Hackberries gnawed at by beavers near Big Walnut Creek, Ohio.

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Tree of the Week for March 7th-March 14th: Washingtonia filifera

As I write this, early spring is engaging in its usual hesitant, uncertain dance with the retreating winter. The rivers are high and the ground is muddy with melted snow; the afternoon sun shines down on the first shoots emerging from daffodil and iris bulbs, but at night Orion still stands high in the cold heavens. Coming out, as we are, from a particularly harsh February, when sub-zero temperatures reached parts of the country that almost never see them, I think that everyone is especially impatient for the coming of Spring. So allow me to ease your impatience by transporting you to a world of baking heat, bright sunlight and cloudless blue skies. Let’s discuss one of the few palm trees that is native to the continental United States, the desert palm: a wild, green savage of desert oases where even on the coldest February days the red rocks are warmed by the unimpeded rays of the sun.

Desert Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera

Desert fan palms along a stream course in Anzo-Borrego State Park
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Tree of the Week for 01/31-02/6 2021: Hamamelis virginiana

After all the leaves have died and fallen, and the trees stand stark before the slashing gales of November, the forest still has a surprise left. You tramp through the late autumnal woods and, at the foot of a hill near a cold brook, you see the unexpectedly delicate flowers of this week’s tree, the witch-hazel Hamamelis virginiana. Perhaps the first snows of winter have already fallen while its yellow flowers are still on the boughs. It’s the last floral display of the year, one last reminder of the beauties of the world of growing, living nature before the long months of death and stasis settle in.

Witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana

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Tree of the Week for September 12th-September 19th, 2020: Aesculus glabra

The calendar marks the autumnal equinox as the first day of autumn, and it’s hard to disagree, to think of early September as anything other than summer. But the plants know. Their leaves detect the shortening days with great precision and begin preparing themselves for the upcoming frosts. And every year, the first tree to show its foresight is this week’s tree, the Ohio buckeye. As early as August its leaves begin to change their hue, and right now they are already out there in the forests making promises of the glories to come.

Ohio buckeye, Aesculus glabra

aesculus glabra 3
A buckeye showing off its colors in early September.

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Mark’s Tree of the Week for August 30th-September 6th, 2020: Fagus grandifolia

Gardeners will sometimes speak of the difficulty of maintaining a ‘4-season garden,’ a garden that presents sights of interest and beauty all the year round, and not just when the flowers bloom or the fruits ripen. And although I hold all trees to be beautiful, it has to be confessed that some are a little dull outside of their own special season. Dogwoods might be gallant princes lighting up the forest in spring, but come summer and they fade to indistinctness among the general greenery; sugar maples might blast the trumpet note of their foliage to the heavens in autumn, but in winter they’re just another bare tree. But this week’s tree, the American beech, is a true ‘four-season tree,’ as beautiful and eyecatching in January as it is in August, and as handsome in April as it is in October.

American beech, Fagus grandifolia

Fagus grandifolia
An american beech rising above the Eagle Creek Reservoir near Indianapolis.


Fagus grandifolia 2
The author posing next to a beech in southern Illinois in November.

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Plant of the Week for August 16th-23rd 2020: Chicorium intybus

Let us thank heaven for inefficiency, laziness, and stinginess! If public works departments and HOAs had their druthers, all the roadsides in the nation would be perfectly uniform strips of green grass, each blade cut with a precision measured in millimeters. But no one has the time, the money, or the energy to mow the edges and median strips of the 4 million or so miles of roadway in the United States with anything like the religious fervor that the task would require. And so, because of their failure, as we go about our daily business in the summertime, we’re treated every year to the wonderful floral displays of this week’s plant, the common chicory.

ChicoryChicorium intybus

chicorium intybus
Chicory flowering on the edge of a prairie.

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Tree of the Week for July 26th-August 2nd, 2020: Platanus occidentalis

On a gray November day, in the year 1770, near the confluence of the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, around modern day Point Pleasant, West Virginia, an exceptional man met an exceptional tree. The man was a surveyor and planter of Virginia, travelling down the Ohio from Fort Pitt to scout out the transylvanian lands newly conquered by the English. The tree, he wrote in his journal, was “about 60 yards from the river, of a most extraordinary size; it measuring 3ft from the ground, and 45ft round, lacking 2 inches; and not 50yards from it was another, 31ft around.” That is to say, the tree was perhaps 14′ in diameter, and another nearby perhaps 10. The man, who would later go on to win fame in other arenas, was George Washington, and the tree was an eastern sycamore. Sycamores have a long history of associating themselves with famous people – according to Marco Polo, the site of one of Alexander’s battles with Darius was marked by an Old World sycamore, the only tree for miles and miles in a desert waste – and it is no wonder, for they draw one’s attention inexorably with their might and beauty.

Eastern sycamore, Platanus occidentalis

platanus occidentalis
Sycamores above an icy river during an Ohio winter.

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Tree of the Week for July 5th-12th 2020: Quercus douglasii

California’s north coast, where the mountains rise sometimes a thousand feet straight from the surging Pacific, is famous for the dense forests of redwoods and douglas-firs that, watered by intense winter rains and mild summer fogs, form perhaps the grandest forests in the world. But if one goes inland a mere twenty-five miles, one suddenly finds oneself in an entirely different world. Here the summers are hot and dry and bright, the cloudless blue vault of the heaven shining like beaten steel over the golden grass of the hills. Here the lush conifers and ferns of the fog belt are replaced by a different flora altogether, a flora that looks as hot as the air. Red-barked manzanitas and white-flowered buckeyes, ghost pines that offer no shade at all, the chamise with their hard and shining foliage, and this week’s tree, the blue oak, with its scraggly limbs that form a second, smaller dome beneath the sky.

Blue oak, Quercus douglasii

Quercus douglasii
A lichen-laden blue oak stretches out after a winter rain in the hills above the Russian river, south of Ukiah.


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Tree of the Week for June 21st-June 28th, 2020: Populus deltoides

In this age of automobiles and airplanes, we tend naturally to think of rivers as things we pass over, brief though impressive obstacles on our motorized path from point A to point B. But in the days of canoes and of steamboats, it was the water that carried goods and people, and the land that had to be laboriously crossed by foot, cart, or carriage. And in North America, all other rivers are eclipsed by the Mississippi system. Up the Mississippi from the cypress swamps and mansions of New Orleans, past the bluffs of Memphis and the mighty earthworks of the old American bottom, up to the wharves of St. Louis and then to Moline, La Crosse, Minneapolis and the great boreal forest beyond; or from Cairo turning right, and heading up the swollen Ohio with its titanic sycamores to Cincinnati and all the way to Pittsburgh nestled in the steep-sided Appalachians; or from St. Louis heading west and going away up the wide Missouri, to Kansas City and then across the prairies and toward the setting sun, to Omaha, to the lands of the Sioux, that vast and desolate expanse of shortgrass where stand in the distance the great Rockies, the cold mountains where the river’s springs bubble in the Yellowstone plateau.

And however long one might travel on this great network of rivers, this lowway that covers a quarter of a continent, however much the ecosystem might vary from the Powder River country to the Tennessee Valley, the boater can see along the banks the gallant shape of the eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides, waving its broad leaves in the wind like the pennants of a knightly host.

Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoides

populus deltoides 2
A cottonwood along the Scioto river in downtown Columbus, OH
Populus deltoides
A cottonwood in early spring near an abandoned farm building in northeastern Montana.


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Tree of the Week for May 17th-23rd 2020: Tsuga canadensis

Last time we looked at a tree of suburban streets and empty lots, whose haunts are the same as the civilized American. This week we will look at a tree which is much the opposite, for the eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, is a tree of crisp mountain forests and the great north woods, far from the cities where most of us live. It is a tree that has long had an important role in both the ecosystems and the human life of these regions. Of late, however, as an introduced pest has killed millions of hemlocks, including some of the most ancient and splendid groves of the tree, casting its future into serious doubt.

Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis

Tsuga canadensis

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