Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Tree By Any Other Name.... I Still Call A Tree

I grew up primarily in rural southern Virginia, in a place where even today they don't lock their doors.   The biggest crime around there, though heinous, consists of throwing Budweiser beer cans on the gravel country roads.

My brothers and I would often decide at night that we were camping out under the stars. It was okay by our parents seeing as we weren't all that close to the road so the likelihood of being bonked by a beer can was pretty low, mad-cows didn't exist yet, and the deer, while incredibly vicious to the hosta population, were found to leave children more or less intact.  We'd grab our flashlights and our sleeping bags,  put fireflies in jars (sorry buddies I didn't know any better then), and tell ghost stories under the large oak trees which grow like weeds in that State.    Invariably someone would end up being the 'outsider' for the night and there was a 50/50 chance the shunning would result in his return to his own bed inside in the wee hours of the night.  Which at that age meant 11:30pm.  And who am I kidding, it was always Russ that we picked on (the littlest, we had no shame).

Sometimes those remaining would go to the old cabin, which had become the pool house, throw on our damp bathing suits and jump in the pool in the dark.  It was nightswimming at its illicit best, because 'nobody' knew we were out there.  (Of course except our parents who I'm sure were watching the entire time now that I realize how not sneaky we really were).    We would all be as still as possible for a while and sooner or later the bats would come down and skim the water,  drinking and looking for others trying to do the same, I'd guess.  That entire pool area was surrounded by 3 large old apple trees and more likely than not we'd all bring some not quite ripe apples, found floating in the pool, back to our sleeping bags.  If Russ was still with us we'd tell him that eating not ripe apples could kill you.

Other times instead of the pool, we'd go out to the front yard and push each other on the tire swing tied up high in one of the huge black walnut trees.   The tree sat on the top of the embankment that led down to the road and if you got a push hard enough you could swing over the road tarzan-style.  Sigh.

The point of this little journey down memory lane is that the trees of my childhood I can recognize in an instant, I spent so much time with them.  In the dark, by the bark, by the leaves.  I know them like the freckles on my arms.  I think I could identify a white pine by feel alone.   But move 6 hours south and to the coast?  If its not a palm, magnolia or live oak, I HAVE NO IDEA.   I literally wouldn't know a sweetgum tree if it fell on me.     I have 3 trees on my property, one of which must be 70+ feet high, all of which I have no earthly clue as to what they are called.   They have acquired nicknames: the evergreen one, the flowery one, and the big one.     The one thing I can tell you, if you add the other three trees I have (a sabel palm, a crape myrtle and a live oak), NONE of the six of them grew where I grew up, which isn't all that far away.  Granted, Europeans can be 2 countries away in 6 hours, but for many of us... we haven't even left the general vicinity.  And heck, in NYC, you could still be on the George Washington Bridge stuck in traffic in a measly 6 hours.    It is quite a wonder how nature, left to itself, tailors itself exactly to the spot. 

Anyhow, as a self proclaimed nature person, I really gotta get on this tree identification thing.   How insane is it that I know the names of 50 plants in my backyard, 30 types of weeds, but don't know the names of the biggest plants around?


  1. Don't feel bad. It's easy to remember those plants that were familiar to us growing up. I used to take pride in almost never being stumped when someone would point to a plant and say "what's that?" Then I moved, from England, to the United States, and felt daunted at having to start all over again! So little seemed familiar here. My plant recognition skills still aren't as good as they when I was younger, but slowly, steadily, I'm getting there. You'll will too, with your trees, just takes a little extra motivation sometimes.

  2. I echo what CVF says: don't feel bad. I sure don't know every tree around me, especially the deciduous ones when they drop their leaves. However, I hang out with a friend who has a nursery and he can identify trees while driving past them at 60 mph. No joke. So I'm improving.
    And then there are those who came to my blog today, got all excited about some of the new plants I was writing about...not realizing what the date was today. And they're also plant people. So we all can learn something, daily.

  3. Jess, I find it hard to believe that there weren't any teenagers in your rural area driving around in the dark whacking rural mailboxes with a baseball bat! -Jean

  4. We would camp out under the apple trees in the orchard besides the farm house. In spring with a slight breeze, the blossoms would stick to the evening, inside looking out, it was pink rain.

  5. Hey man, it's all good. I had to start from scratch 4 years ago in identifying trees. Not many of the trees that can be grown up in my part of Canada can be grown here. AND I only started gardening, and therefore CARING what a tree was called at that point LOL. I'm very good now, but that's only because I'm a geek. All winter long, I visit the garden centers just to walk around and plan for the summer. I would learn to recognize different trees even without leaves, just by the bark or the shape of the tree. I kind of made it a game. My husband also taught me a lot of them...especially a sweet gum, because they're so messy lol. Never plant one of those, btw. ;)

  6. Good morning Jess, what a fun story of childhood memories. very nice.
    As for knwoledge of trees...well, I have been a Master Gardener for 11 years now and had gained knowledge of so many shrubs, perennials, weeds, and various grasses. Trees? Not so much. I took it upon myself to learn one tree every week. I am lucky enough to know a few tree stewards who are patient with my questions. Sometimes we go into the woods and try to figure out one tree or another. It was a lot easier when the trees had leaves. A few weeks ago we were in our Learning Garden and looking at this one tree that now stood out as all the leaves were gone. My tree friend looked at me and said --'you should know this one' !?!?!?! augh. I did but I was not confident in my answer. Funny we all get a mental block on what we know.
    I post my new tree on Tuesdays and try to include photos of bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, or some other striking features. Now with some trees starting to bud up I am looking --trying to see if I can figure out who is who before the leaves make the ID easier.

  7. I enjoyed your trip down memory lane! The thought of moving to a new area and having to learn a whole new plant culture is scary, though exciting. Good luck with your tree identification!

  8. Hi Jess~~ I can send you photos of a Sweet Gum tree. I've got three monsters in my front yard and before I moved here was completely oblivious to this genus. I'm not very adept at tree ID either...

    Your post is very well written and engaging. What a treat to have such carefree, joyful memories. It sounds like you lived in a veritable paradise.

  9. Hiya Jess. What a beautiful and evocative post of your childhood memories and that wonderful link to the trees you grew up with. It won't be long before you know your new ones by touch in the dark too I'm sure ;)

  10. Hi, thanks everyone!

    Heidi - my tree climbing days might be over. Anythings possible but I'm doubtful!

    Grace - I was a lucky child. I grew up in a 1760 colonial plantation house with its surrounding land... and according to Kyna I don't want to know what a sweetgum tree is :)

    and Jean - most of the townsfolk really thought our house was haunted, so maybe those teens were knocking down mailboxes, our house was unaffected. Though the sheriff knew all the teens in town so it was hard to get away with much that left evidence.

    Jodi, CVF, Kyna, Deb, Kimberly - it is my goal before summer is out to have all the trees in my yard identified.