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.
On November 8, the Southwest Nature Preserve was dedicated in honor of Sheri Capehart, a passionate environmentalist, animal lover and community leader who is also Arlington’s longest-serving City Council member.
The city of Arlington has a wonderful recording of the event, highlighting the Friends activities and contributions to maintaining the preserve as well as why the name Sheri Capehart was a perfect fit for naming the Preserve.
The recent history of the preserve starts in 2005, when The Trust for Public Land, partnering with the City of Arlington, purchased the land from a housing developer. The trust held the land until Arlington voters passed a bond package. It took years of restoration and improvements before the facility opened to the public in 2013. We marked the 8th Anniversary of the park’s grand opening with a program at the preserve on Saturday, November 6th.
Laura Capik welcomed the group with some history of how the preserve came to be, plus a run-down of the projects that the Friends group has undertaken in the last few years.
Jim Frisinger led a walk to the north edge of the preserve, explaining the project to restore the prairie in that area, describing the decisions we’re making on what should be encouraged and protected and what steps we are taking to help this prairie area thrive. Click here for the video of the walk
After the walk, we served refreshments and visited the Audubon Birding area off the Pollinator Meadow.
The World of … Lichens
Manuela Dal Forno, PhD, presented an entire introductory course on lichens. Lichens are complex symbiotic units formed by a main fungal partner, a green algal and/or a cyanobacterial partner, along with a diverse community of microorganisms. They represent an important biological group present in most terrestrial ecosystems, with key functions such as colonizers, food source, nitrogen fixers, among many others. During the Zoom recording of her program, you will learn more about lichens in general – what they are, why they are important and how to detect important characteristics to identify them in the field and in the lab.
Manuela Dal Forno (Manu) is a Brazilian-American researcher interested in multiple aspects of the lichen symbiosis. She earned her PhD in Environmental Sciences and Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia and later was awarded two postdoctoral fellowships to work at the Botany Department at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She joined the Botanical Research Institute (BRIT) in 2019. Her research has particularly focused on the discovery of new species, especially in the Tropics, and how they are related to one another.
View the recording here.
Some resources for those wanting to learn more and explore a gallery of lichens.
Lichens of North America (book) and website
iNaturalist guides and observations
US Forest Service
Ways of Enlichenment
An Evening at SWNP – Looking for Arachnids, by Michael Smith
The evening of August 14th was focused on discovering and understanding spiders and their kin, under the guidance of Meghan Cassidy. She is a naturalist, photographer, and a strong advocate of everything in the class Arachnida. Those animals, the arachnids, include spiders, harvestmen, scorpions, ticks, and a few others, many of whom are misunderstood and sometimes feared. There is much to love about arachnids, though, and the walk on the 14th showed it.
Meghan brought a few examples to get us started, including a wolf spider, yellow garden spider, and a solifuge. During the discussion of those critters, a family discovered our little group and joined for a while. Their pre-adolescent boy promptly found a striped bark scorpion and brought it to us. It had just molted and was bright, soft and vulnerable. An interesting discovery was that, while scorpions show up as fluorescent yellow-green under a black light, this one did not. Perhaps there is some change in the chitin after it hardens that is necessary in order to fluoresce under black light.
About a dozen participants came together before we started the walk. Many of them were easily pulled into a genuine fascination with the little things of this world. For them, spiders are no less worthy of study – and of admiration and respect – than any other wildlife.
I tentatively place myself in that group, despite my continuing tactile defensiveness of webs or what feels like clutching, unpredictable contact of spider-on-skin. I can admire the symmetry and patterns of webs and be fascinated with the sparkling way that sunlight can reflect off the silken strands. I am captivated by the pretty patterns of yellow garden spiders or green lynxes, and wonder at the strange, crab-like, thorny forms of spiny-backed orb-weavers. It’s the grasping, tactile contact with a bigger spider that I struggle with.
The admiration and wonder are stronger than the crawling residue of fear. I joined the ranks of the other naturalists, searching the vegetation alongside the trail, capturing a small species of lynx spider to ask Meghan to identify, and listening to the give-and-take of discussion as she shared her extensive knowledge of these arachnids and their natural history. We found leaves folded around silken “sleeping sacs” that some spiders use for a daytime refuge, and some of them contained shed skins of growing spiders.
It was such a positive experience, being a part of a group whose delight was in discovering and sharing things about the natural world. Somebody would find something on the sidewalk and everyone would immediately crouch down to see it up close, photograph it, and find out what Meghan would have to say about it.
“It’s a dotted wolf spider.” Meghan explained, pointing out the pattern on its abdomen and how it lacked the chevrons that defined the rabid wolf spider (which is not really “rabid” or aggressive, just fast).
After sunset, Meghan showed us how to shine flashlights into the leaf litter and look for the greenish reflected light from the eyes of wolf spiders. At the ponds, we were able to see many long-jawed orb-weavers (the name emphasizes their jaws but once again they are not aggressive or dangerous), spinning webs over the water. In the trees, other orb-weavers were constructing their target-shaped webs. The tinier spiders wove orbs so fine that they looked like small circles of woven mist clinging to a flower stem. At the north pond, participants with black lights discovered two tiny scorpions. Despite being babies, they fluoresced green in the black lights; otherwise we never would have found them.
As the evening was wrapping up around 10:00pm, I walked ahead a little and watched the approaching group, now visible as a half-dozen flashlight beams shooting out of the tree canopy at shifting angles like some luminous beast of the woods. These were my kind of folks, people who would stay past the designated time and never give it a moment’s thought, lost in discovery and wonder.