Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Is Bark Worse Than A Bite?

You can always tell a DOGwood by it's BARK. Gee did I really say that. That's just bad.  Anyway, it's one thing to recognize trees by bud and twig in the winter, how are you on trunks and bark? Let's start with this zebra striped tree. Susceptible to a fungus disease, this species is becoming more uncommon throughout the nation.  This is the White Walnut or Butternut, Juglans cinerea. Like Black Walnut, it's fruit is edible. It can be found in all habitats but prefers bottomlands.

There are several trees in our forest whose trunk is much darker than others. Consisting of small bark chunks seemingly squeezed together is the Black Oak, Quercus velutina. The upper portions of the trunk may resemble other species in having stripes, but this pattern changes lower down. Black gets Blocky at the Bottom. The bark is often covered with dark lichens or moss, and has a dirty feeling when rubbed. The tree with the long warped strips of bark behind is Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata.

If one is going to use the term "blocky bark", nothing illustrates this better than Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana. It appears as if square building blocks were glued to the trunk. They are very 3-dimensional, meaning they stand out away from the trunk. If unsure, you can scrape the bark with a pocket knife and reveal fudge-marble swirls inside, as seen in the upper and lower parts of the photo. Look for Persimmon in early successional woods, as they are shade intolerant, and can not compete in a mature forest.

Looking like black burned potato chips, this platy bark is from the Wild Black Cherry, Prunus serotina. This is a common species, and highly prized for it's wood. Often referred to as potato chip bark because it 'cracks' like chips when you pull off a piece. The back side of each plate is orange, resulting in often calling them burnt corn flakes.

Yellow Buckeye Aesculus flava, usually has smooth gray bark when young, much like that of Beech. With age the bark plates out and looks like dried mud on an arid landscape. Yellow Buckeye is restricted to south-east Ohio.
Ohio Buckeye Aesculus glabra, is much more widespread in Ohio. It's bark is often two-toned with light and dark squiggly lines throughout.

We have two species of Hornbeams in Ohio, both also referred to as Ironwoods. This is the Hop-hornbeam or Ostrya virginiana. The bark looks as if it was run through a paper shredder.
The other is the American Hornbeam, or as I prefer, the Musclewood Carpinus caroliniana. The appearance of the bark is like that of rippled muscles. Because of the dense wood, it had been used for things like prying poles, crowbars, and tree or door wedges.

In this area we have two very deeply furrowed, gray barked trees. In our mixed oak forests is the Chestnut Oak, Quercus montana (prinus).  The bark is very hard, like that of cement. It's sometimes called rock chestnut oak. Look for it on upper slopes and ridgetops.

Similar in appearance to Chestnut Oak is the Cottonwood, Populus deltoides. Unlike the previous, Cottonwood is restricted to wet bottomlands, so the two shall never meet. Only in the southern states will you see the Swamp Chestnut Oak, Quercus michauxii growing in wet soils.

One of the easiest trees to recognize from a distance is the Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. The brown chipped bark, seen on the second to left, will eventually fall off and reveal a patchwork or camo look in various shades of white, yellow, green, and brown. Sycamores love water and will dominate bottomland forests. Biomass wise, Sycamore is one of our largest trees in the eastern U.S. Folklore tells us that a man on horseback could hide inside a hollowed out Sycamore.

Also dominating our bottomlands is the River Birch, Betula nigra. The bark at the bottom of big trees may be black, but further up the trunk it will have salmon colored, or orange-pink strips that will peel and curl around the branches.

Less common in our area is the Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis. Only small portions of the bark will peel. The curls look like a duck tail, or freshly planed or shaved wood.

Planted as an ornamental in Ohio is the Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera. Also called White Birch or Canoe Birch, this species is more common in the Northern Hardwoods forest of the Great Lakes and New England. The bark of this species can be cut off the trunk in large sheets. Being waterproof, birch bark was used to write letters on during pioneer days. Pieces were also used to seal holes on canoes. Two other birches have white bark. The Gray and European Birch differ from White Birch by their leaves.

Speaking of the Northern Hardwoods Forest, this beautiful green and white striped bark belongs to Striped Maple, Acer pennsylvanicum. Unless you live in Ashtabula County, you'll have to go further north to find this guy. It's a small understory tree, never reaching the size of our other maples.

One of those other maples is the Silver Maple, Acer saccharinum. It's bark is smooth gray when young and changes into this more furrowed appearance when old. Because of its tendency to form multiple trunks, and fall on houses, it's not as popular a landscape plant as it once was. The bark of Red Maple, Acer rubrum is identical.  Silver maple is restricted to wet bottomlands. Red Maple grows anywhere. Since both can grow together in a wetland, the only way to tell them apart without leaves is the bud.
The bud scales on Red Maple all come to a fine sharp point.
Silver Maple bud scales also come to a fine point, but will contain an even sharper part, or what we call a mucronate tip. Looking at the photos you probably think they look the same. You need a hand lens to examine this.

One of our most important economic trees, and most dominate is the White Oak, Quercus alba. The bark is in loose pieces of white plates that easily flake off when rubbed. Chinquapin, Swamp White, and Post Oak all have similar bark, but can be separated by the twigs, fruit, leaves, growth form, or habitat.

Joining Chestnut Oak up on our high slopes and ridgetops is the Scarlet Oak, Quercus coccinea. Often the best way to tell Scarlet Oak in the winter is not by the trunk surface itself. It may be striped, blocky, or a combination of the two like other oaks. Look for the collection of dead branches all along the trunk which it retains more so than any other upland species.

I mentioned earlier that Cottonwood and Chestnut Oak have similar bark, but grow in different sites. Here is another case of that. This is Pin Oak, Quercus palustris. It too retains a lot of scraggly lower branches, but Pin Oak likes to keep it's feet wet.The lower branches in this species may still be alive and growing straight down due to competition from other trees. Plant a Pin Oak in the open and the lower branches will spread out and look more like an umbrella.

There are two species to look for here, both are very common in our area. On the left is Red Oak, Quercus rubra. The furrows are shallow on Red Oak, and give the appearance of dark and light stripes throughout the tree from top to bottom. Those on the right are Tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera. Sometimes called yellow-poplar, it is not a true poplar, but actually a Magnolia. Young to medium sized Tulips have bark like a cantaloupe. Older trees like this often have this white-wash look inside their furrows. Tulips are our tallest and straightest growing trees in the east. They've been recorded reaching 200 feet.

Had I put some "needles" in the picture, it would be easier. This is White Pine, Pinus strobus. I stuck it in here because most pines have platy or scaly bark. White Pine will eventually furrow out with age, but it's our only eastern pine that shows smooth black bark.

Sticking with conifers for a bit, here is the most popular tree sold during the holidays. Now you're thinking, my Christmas tree never looked THAT bad. This is Scotch Pine, Pinus sylvestris, a European species commonly raised on tree farms. Leave Scotch Pine grow in the wild and it will lose it's outer bark and expose a bright orange look on the upper half of the trunk and branches.

Both Red and White Cedars have bulging areas along the trunk, and bark that also resembles shredded paper. Being evergreens, you could never confuse the bark with Hop-hornbeam. This one is White Cedar or Arbor Vitae, Thuja occidentalis. Rich in vitamin C, it cured scurvy in early settlement times. Arbor Vitae means "tree of life".

Some trees just have a look all their own. With its swollen base, the Bald Cypress, Taxodium distichum is widely known as the dominant plant of southern swamps.

At first glance, this plant can be quite confusing. The bark is usually not visible on many of the shrub varieties planted in our yards. This is one of the ornamental Yews, Taxus sp.

It's got warts! Looks like pieces of stuck silly-putty. The trunk is covered in dripped candle wax. However you wish to describe it, Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis has a unique look all to itself. Hackberry will grow anywhere but prefers bottomlands.

When I was first learning trees, the bark of this species never really stood out. Now when I see it, I think it looks like someone took a pocket knife and cut thin grooves in it from top to bottom. Well it works for me anyway. This is Basswood, Tilia americana.

Rough looking bark forming long criss-crosses or scissor shaped furrows. Not the easiest to do by bark alone, this is Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia.

Not long, but short criss-crosses forming X, Y, or V's. Horizontally look for the thin lines going across that break up the pattern. Slice vertically into the bark and bright orange colors appear. This is Sassafras, Sassafras albidum.

Looks like it wants to form plates or ridges that fall off, or maybe just furrows, or maybe X like patterns. Then again maybe it doesn't know what it wants to be. That tells me it's Black Willow, Salix nigra. We have other willows in our area ranging from shrubs to small trees, and yet others that form thickets. Black Willow concentrates its energy on usually a single trunk and can attain very large sizes in wet bottomlands.

These last few are probably the most difficult to recognize. This gangly looking shrub has bark arranged in thin loose strips that may eventually fall off. This is one of our broad leaved evergreens known as Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia. Okay, you're a latifolia.

Not much to go on? You're right. What I look for on this species is a snakeskin like pattern of alternating dark and light gray stripes. Combine this bark with long skinny buds and you have Serviceberry or Juneberry, Amelanchier arborea. Young hickory trees, especially Pignut, can have bark like this, but of course the buds will be totally different.

What tree has bark that wears the Statue of Liberty crown? Only one, the Devil's Walking-stick, Aralia spinosa. In our area, look for it in the Hocking Hills.

Another species found in wet areas around the Hocking Hills is this member of the Rose family, Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius. The paper thin pieces of orange bark fall off at the slightest touch.

Hmm, is this a trick?  Thought I'd end with something different. Vines have a trunk too don't they? This is Trumpet Creeper, Campsis radicans. It has aerial rootlets like that of Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper, but it concentrates them all in one area.


  1. Striped Maple is a common understory tree in the area of Michigan we vacation at during the summer. One of my favorite trees because of that unique and beautiful bark!

  2. I no sooner publish these two posts, and immediately see a comment from you. I thought I was the only fool still up at 4:30 in the morning!

  3. Nice post, Dennis. I saw so much Aralia while working at Tar Hollow this summer - devil's walking stick AND of course ginseng. We found huge four-prongers out there!

    P.S. I've tried stopping by your office about every day this week! I should probably start reading your office hours haha

  4. Nice your stripped Maple pic helped me identify a tree on my property. Had no clue a maple could look like that.

  5. Hi, great blog! Your info about the red and silver maple might help me a lot, since I find both too similar. Is the second photo a silver maple twig with the forementionned mucronated bud scales? Thanks!

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this post. Raised in New Jersey and raising kids in Connecticut, I feel like I've just been on a fantastic nature walk. Expertly written, phantastic fotografs, and just plain phun! Thanks for sharing it.

  7. well my favorite tree is either cedar or junipers and white-cedars

  8. Very helpful. It's really hard to see the twigs on an 80 foot tree!