People take trees for granted until one falls on your house or car. You are miserably warm on a summer day and over there beckons a shade tree. Wow--I never knew that tree bloomed in the spring! What are those breathtaking orange trees in the autumn woods?
Deciduous tree leaves appear in nearly every color of the rainbow before they are released from the tree as the cold days of winter approach. Today, most of the trees are still in dormancy, but some now have a green cast or enlarged buds at the end of branches showing the tree is firing up for spring.
Stand back in awe and study the framework of the woody perennial before the leaves unfold and hide most branches, leaving only the exposed trunk. Know that three hundred and fifty million years ago the first big tree appeared. Christened Archaeopteris, this ancient had an elaborate root system, thick woody trunk at the base that tapered high in the sky to a “Christmas tree” with branches and spore-producing fern-like leaves. The tree may have shed its leaves similar to today’s oak trees. It appears that Archaeopteris spread to every land mass on the Earth, but as the climate changed, the tree disappeared, leaving its closest descendants, the mosses, and related seed-forming trees alive today.
The naked tree reveals the history of its life. Nothing hides the scars, bent limbs, interesting lumps and bumps, texture of the bark, surface roots, embrace of vines, or structure shaped by plant competition, wind, fires, weather or soil. Take a breath. Try in your mind to replicate the upright horizontal anatomy then plunge it upside down into the ground, fanning the trunk and branches out in a vertical circle. Most tree roots live in the top 18 inches of soil, but in the best of conditions extend down 20 feet. Unless you have a Prosopis species (Mesquite tree) which can send roots down 200 feet, or live in South Africa and spend your days wondering about the wild fig tree with penetrating 400 foot-long roots.
Tree roots grow in spurts in spring, summer and fall. They calm down in winter unless the soil temps remain above 40 degrees F. In that case, they slowly keep growing, which is why it is recommended trees be planted in late fall to early spring. Nothing happening above ground, but the roots are going to town below.
Trees have distinctive profiles and branch orientations. They may prefer single or multiple trunks covered with smooth, shaggy or rugged light or dark bark. Trees range widely in size. Using some of these characteristics can help identify a tree minus leaves, flowers or fruit.
The American Elm is a V-shaped tree, composed of limbs that spread up and out from their attachment to the trunk. The elder elm has deep fissured dark bark. Pin oak has a grayish thin ridged bark and forms a pyramid shape. Honeylocust thorns sprout from the trunk and base of branches. The Bur Oak likes to grow into a symmetrical round ball, if possible. Light brown bark covers the thick tree trunk. Spreading wide but not too tall are the redbud and dogwood. River birch has multiple trunks with reddish flaky bark with age forming scales and plates. The American Sycamore has flaky but quite light bark and far surpasses the river birch in height.
Trees reflect where they live. In many neighborhoods, broken or injured branches are removed, fertilizer and water may be applied and the tree usually experiences little competition from other plants, except grass.
Growing all by itself next to a dirt road in McBaine, Missouri is one huge Bur Oak. This old oak has survived fires, floods and the Civil War. Estimated to be between 300 to 400 years old, the tree is 74 feet tall and 129 feet wide with a circumference of 295 inches. Six generations of the Williamson family have cared for old Methuselah. They call themselves “Keeper of the Tree.” During the last drought the oak was given several thousand gallons of water. What a tree. What a family.
In forests, trees compete for space, light and water. Grapes and other vines crawl up trunks while animals make homes and nests in roots, the main stem or branches. Cross Timbers is a great area for tree watching since it is a mosaic of prairies and woodlands. Oak trees often grow as independent entities in open areas and develop spectacular canopies. In wooded areas, dense clusters of oaks weave and intertwine branches together to form impenetrable thickets.
The spring brings a bonus for tree spotters. Flowers decorate bare branches as living ornaments. Keep an eye out for the redbuds, plums (especially sand plums), dogwoods and other natives. They’re beautiful this time of year.
The unique tree in the picture grows in Shawnee. What a survivor.