What Trees and Shrubs Can Tell Us in Winter
Review of Suzanne Tuttle’s walk in the woods, by Michael Smith. Photos by Michael Smith
In winter, most woody plants (trees and shrubs) lose their leaves and so they might seem to lose their identity. What is this plant with a big brown trunk and some smaller brown branches? Looking more closely, the tree gives us lots of clues: the texture of the bark, the overall shape of the trunk and branches, any thorns or remaining berries, and so on.
Suzanne Tuttle helped us interpret these clues on a bright, perfect Saturday, January 22nd. Suzanne is the retired manager of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, and she serves on Boards of Directors for the Fort Worth Chapter of the Native Prairies Association of Texas as well as the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center. Her Winter Woody Plant ID class is a favorite among nature lovers every time she offers it. On the 22nd she offered it at Sheri Capehart Nature Preserve, and fifteen of us walked around the preserve with her, learning the secrets of elbowbush, sumac, prickly ash, as well as post oaks and other trees.
The first tree whose secrets were revealed was a cedar elm, a tree that is common in the preserve alongside post oaks and others. One clue to the identity of cedar elm is its profusion of small branches. After all, its leaves are small and so it takes a lot of them to collect sunlight and power the tree. A fine tangle of small branches is needed to grow all those leaves.
Then, at a bend in the sidewalk leading down to the fishing pond, Suzanne showed us a low thicket of pale branches, with each major stem sporting pairs of side-branches. This was elbow bush, a shrub in the olive family. One of its characteristics is those pairs of branches growing opposite each other. Another interesting thing that Suzanne told us is that it’s a “dioecious” plant, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. Instead of every plant having flowers that can both produce pollen and grow seed, there is a separate male plant to pollinate the flowers of a different female plant.
Near the pond, she found a honey locust, a tree with huge branching thorns. It is literally the case that even its thorns have thorns. Late in the year it produces long flat seed pods that twist into spirals as they dry.
We walked back toward the north pond and through the woodlands, past a Hawthorn with its slender, needle-like thorns and among some sumac. The dark red seeds of sumac, clustered together in seed heads, can be boiled to make a sort of lemony drink, Suzanne told us.
In a couple of woodland locations she found coralberry, a small shrub whose magenta-pink berries can persist into the winter even after the leaves are gone. The coralberry often grows among the post oaks, and the preserve gave us lots of post oak and blackjack oak for Suzanne to talk about. One of the things she mentioned was that the post oak, with its thick bark, is fairly fire-tolerant. Based on the spacing of the bigger post oaks, she wondered if long ago the area might have been more of a savannah with trees spaced a little apart and grasslands growing among them. Periodic fires (from lightning strikes or set by Native people) would have killed back the sprouts of woody plants and maintained the open savannah.
We passed what remained of some invasive Chinaberry which a team of volunteers led by Jim Frisinger has worked to eradicate. Further down the trail we came across some native western soapberry, giving Suzanne an opportunity to talk about the differences. The destructive Chinaberry has, when the trunks get large, a vertical striped sort of pattern to its bark and has clusters of brownish berries that grow from around a branch juncture and look a little like a skirt around that portion of the branch. Soapberry, a small native tree, has clusters of yellow berries that are a little translucent, letting you see a shadow of the dark seed within it. Those clusters grow on branching panicles that hang away from the tree’s branches.
The walk continued on in that manner, a group of people eager to understand more about the natural world around us. Suzanne showed us a small water oak and talked about the delightful – if kind of thorny – prickly ash (aka “Hercules club” or “toothache bush”). She talked about poison ivy and how we might identify it by those clusters of off-white berries in winter when the “leaves of three (let them be)” have fallen. Knowing more about trees and shrubs, as well as birds, insects, and everything else, changes how we perceive this place. The more details are revealed, the more deeply we come to know, respect, and care for this place. Our thanks to Suzanne Tuttle for helping us deepen our relationship with the preserve.