How diverse is a forest near you?

Taking a trip to Highbanks Metro Park, I wonder, what kind of diversity lies in the forest I’ve so often enjoyed. With only a short time of implementing tree and plant identification, I’ve come to acknowledge how difficult it can be. Once you’ve learned the main genera near you, It becomes second nature to point out trees such as oaks, maples, hickories, etc. you may have otherwise taken for granted.  Although I’ve listed below some characteristics of 8 different species near my home, there were many more I’d love to have explored. If anything, finding these 8 species in such a short walk showed me how much I’ve been missing out on. Although I’m not confident in my identification of all of these trees, I feel pretty good about most of them!

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

This particular tree is one of many maples throughout the park standing beautifully in a maintained area where children enjoy playing in a fragmented section of the woodlands.  They have opposite, simple leaves with relatively shallow lobes and a wide base of the terminal lobe. Leaves are whitened and hairless or hairy beneath. Along with broken darker older bark. Who would have thought red maple wood was used for railroad ties?

Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)

 I admired this oak in a fragmented section only a moment before I started my hunt into the woodlands.  Pin Oak have alternate simple leaves that are deeply lobed. An acorn cup that is brownish, hairless and shallow.  The pin oak often has lower branches that characteristically point downward. When I think of acorns from the trees of oaks I often associate them with food for squirrels, rather according to the Peterson “Trees and Shrubs” it seems there are quite an abundant selection of wildlife whom enjoy this treat from songbirds, grouse, turkeys and ducks to deer, foxes, black bears, raccoons, opossums and chipmunks! 

Tall Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Of the few trees I recognize easily while walking the trails of Highbanks are the Pawpaw trees, they often grow in clusters right along the trails.  The first thing i notice are the low hanging large leaves. Often a small tree, Pawpaw’s have alternate simple, large toothless leaves and long, naked, deep brown-hairy or reddish-hairy end buds. The leaves are 6-12 inches and the tree range in height from 6-20 feet! Pawpaw trees produce fruit that can be eaten raw or used in dessert, I’ve once been told they taste as though you mixed together banana and mango.

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

The most distinguishing characteristic of a sycamore is the mottled brown bark that flakes off, exposing yellowish and whitish under bark.  Before making it to the trails, I caught a glimpse of the bark high up into this tree allowing for easy identification. The sycamore has an alternate simple leaf that has 3 to 5 lobes and large teeth, they are roughly 6 to 10 inches. If you find one hanging low enough to grab, you can look to see that the leafstalk base is hollow. I was unaware of how useful sycamores are to humans and wildlife.  The Petersons “Trees and Shrubs” informs the hard coarse grained wood is used for boxes, barrels, butchers’ blocks, cabinets, and furniture. The twigs can be eaten and their cavities are used for nests and shelters.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)

I stumbled across this tree along a trail through Highbanks on the way to the bald eagle observatory deck. It has alternate compound leaves with 5-7 leaflets that are 8 to 14 inches. With characteristic bark that is light colored and shaggy in long loose strips, this tree is typically an easy one to identify once you stumble across it.  Apparently Indiana bats make their homes in snug areas under the loose bark! 

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

This was a fun find! Standing all by it’s lonesome in the woodlands, not only does the dark color of the bark stand out, the unique cracking and appearance is gorgeous. It has alternate, simple leaves with rough dark outer bark, and a red-brown under bark that can be visible through the cracks in the outer bark. The leaves are long, narrow and blunt toothed. I consider it common knowledge that cherry wood is used for furniture, according to The Petersons “Trees and Shrubs” the bark  can also be used for flavoring.

Black Walnut ( Juglans nigra)

Standing tall and proud between the play areas for the children, was this stunning black walnut, with nuts starting to fall. It has alternate compound leaves, with 7-17 narrow toothed leaflets, slightly hairy beneath ranging from 12 to 24 inches.  It’s common for the end leaflet to be lacking.  If you get a chance to grab one you can crush it to find a spicy scent.  The buds are a distinct whitish and woolly.  You can also find fruits that are large spherical nuts, often littered throughout the forest floor nearby. The bark is dark and deeply grooved.  Black walnut is one of the most valuable native trees used for veneers, cabinets, interior finishing, and gun stocks.  A fun fact I learned from The Petersons “Trees and Shrubs” about the walnut bruised husks is they were once used to kill fish for food! I’m happy to know this is now illegal.

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp)

I found this hawthorn right along the trail in the woodlands of Highbanks metro park. With alternate simple leaves and quite a variation of leaves, I’ve always found the long thorns to be a characteristic trait to help in identifying hawthorns. They are often characterized with long thorns and smooth or scaly bark. They have small, yellow to red, apple-like fruits, remaining on the trees through winter. According to the Petersons “Trees and Shrubs” hawthorns are preferred for nesting by songbirds, and are important honey plants. Maybe the thorns are good for stabilization?

Although many people are found traversing forest trails on a daily basis, I wonder how many are truly aware of what exists around them. To some, they see trees and plants and maybe even notice there are differences. I’ve always dreamed of opening myself to that knowledge, being able to truly see what’s around me and appreciate the many benefits humans and wildlife alike gain from these very trees surrounding us. I began curing myself of tree blindness over the last two years, it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s been a very welcome start.