Birch, cedar, white pine, hemlock. Prior to last Thursday, this meager list was the extent of the tree species I could confidently identify in the forest. That's a severe limitation when writing about the outdoors.
Which is why, last week, I enlisted Jim Schmierer, a forester and instructor at Michigan Technological University, to help me tell a red maple from a sugar maple. We met up at Nara Nature Park, where Jim showed me around some of the trees, and I learned a bit about forest habitat in the process.
Looking at the woods, the leaves on the trees were rusty yellow, sometimes, red, sometimes brown.
The red-leafed trees were red maples, which stand out readily in the autumn when their leaves are in full color. A less-obvious identifying characteristic is their bulbous, red-colored buds. Hard maple buds, by contrast, are less colorful and sharply pointed.
Oaks added the forest's brown tones. Specifically, they were red oaks, but it is easy to make that distinction up here, once you know you're dealing with an oak, because most other oaks, such as black oak and white oak, do not grow at this latitude. Pin oaks do, Jim said, but they are rare.
White birches and aspens contributed some of the woods' yellow color. As I mentioned earlier, the white birch was one of the few tree species could confidently identify even before last week's dendrology hike. What I learned about birch trees is why so many of the big ones in the Western U.P. seem to be on their last legs.
Birch trees like to grow in disturbed areas under full sun, Jim explained. Around the turn of the 19th century, when Upper Peninsula timber harvesting was basically a free-for-all, there was plenty of disturbed, unshaded land on which birch trees could flourish. Those trees are well past the century mark by now, and 100 years is longer than most birches can expect to live. So it is not surprising they are as likely found toppled across a trail as standing alongside it.
Jim and I encountered plenty of trembling and big tooth aspen along the trail, differentiated by big tooth's more deeply serrated leaf edges. I also learned there are clues to tree identification besides the minutia of leaf shape and bud structure. Clues are sometimes found in the tree's surrounding habitat. Jim said when looking at an ash tree, for instance, "if you're standing knee-deep in water, it's probably black ash and not white ash."
We did not see any ash trees on our short hike on the Nara Nature Trails, since even white ashes prefer wetter soil than the dry-mesic ground we trod upon (mesic habitat being an environment with a moderate amount of moisture). But dry-mesic is great habitat for white pines, a tree I can identify when it's fully grown. White pines develop their evocative shapes, Jim said, because they have a tendency to lose limbs during storms.
The woods we walked through at Nara Nature Park were scattered with young white pine trees. Many have been planted during the past few years, Jim said, because white pines were likely the predominant species in those woods before the logging boom, and they will do well in that habitat.
Nara Nature Park, at least the part we hiked in last Thursday, is a managed forest, its trees selectively harvested to maximize species diversity. This diversity, Jim said, provides habitat for wildlife, creates aesthetically pleasing surroundings for outdoor recreation, and gives the forest its best chance for continued health.
It also allowed me, in about a half-mile's hike, to significantly expand the list of trees I can name in the forest.