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Learning ways to identify trees by telltale clues

MILLBROOK — If you are going to get to know any tree and perhaps give it a hug, you might want to start by knowing its name.

During a fast-paced program titled “Tree Identification for Beginners,” three naturalists joined to teach the basics of getting to know tree names. They don’t all look alike, and they can be easily differentiated if you know how.

The webinar, presented on March 23, was sponsored by the Cary Institute in Millbrook. It assembled a panel consisting of Cary Institute wildlife biologist Mike Fargione, and ecologist Julie Hart and social scientist Brian Straniti, both of the Dutchess Land Conservancy.

“Trees thrive in communal relationships, like humans,” Straniti said, noting that they need connectivity with each other and their forest environment.

Just as humans live longer when their roots go deep within their communities, so do trees, Straniti added.

Early spring is a good time to look closely at a tree’s branches to see whether branch buds are alternating or opposite each other, whether on either side of the twig facing each other, or staggered along the twig. Those are clues toward identification.

Other clues are overall shape, distinctive bark, leaf shapes and seeds such as acorns and pine cones. To simplify the process, there are reliable publications that provide step-by-step keys to identification.

Smartphones have also stepped up to offer a highly recommended free  app named SEEK, developed by iNaturalist. Snap a photo of bark, leaf or seed, and your phone will do the rest. SEEK is safe for children who want to explore the outdoors on their own and it will also identify animals, insects, plants and fungi.

A virtual walk — led by the three panelists in area woodlands — allowed program viewers to encounter familiar trees. There are three types of oaks likely to be found in the local area: white, red and chestnut oaks, viewers learned.

An observer can tell much from looking at the tree as a whole and then zooming in for a closer look. Start with its silhouette, then move in to see the features of its bark, its leaves, its seeds or cones.

You will find that sugar maples and red maples feature opposite leaves along their twigs.

The virtual tour paused at northern red oaks that can grow in height to more than 100 feet, American beech, black cherry, birches that can be paper, white, black or yellow. To identify a birch, always look at the bark.

Then there is the beautiful American sycamore, usually found in wet areas, remarkable for having different bark types on the same tree.

Trout fishermen know that trout streams may harbor trout because nearby hemlocks provide cooling shade.

Recent generations have seen the white ash tree taking over the spaces vacated by the once-thriving population of elm trees, but now the emerald ash borer insect is devastating the ash trees, Fargione reported.

Hart observed, “Evolution is a journey, not a destination.  We don’t know everything.”

The Cary Institute grounds are now open to visitors to enjoy its trees and walk its trails in Millbrook. More activities and nature walks are planned for the coming months. To learn more, go to the website at www.caryinstitute.org.

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