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Name That Tree (05/02)


Can you tell a sugar maple from a red maple in winter? Or an ash from a dogwood? Sure, a paper birch or a shagbark hickory pose no great challenge, but what about almost every other deciduous tree in Vermont? How do you know what species you are looking at when you can’t see the leaves? This is just what I was hoping to learn as fourteen of us set off up Mt. Philo with Mike Snyder, a Chittenden County forester. This was my first GMC hike and I was enticed by the opportunity to continue my education on this unseasonably warm, sunny day in March.

One of the first deciphering techniques Mike taught us was to look up and notice whether the branches and twigs are growing directly opposite each other in pairs or alternating and offset. If they are opposite, you’ve narrowed your choices down to maple, ash, dogwood or honeysuckle (a non-native, invasive shrub which you can feel free to rip out of your property anytime). An easy way to remember which trees grow with opposite branching is the acronym: MADHoney (maple, ash, dogwood, honeysuckle).

Another test is to notice whether each stem has room for only one leaf, or whether each leaf is actually a cluster of smaller leaflets, such as the common staghorn sumac. Three common compound leaf trees of New England are ash, hickory and sumac. Knowing these helps the winter ecologist narrow his or her choices ever further. So, if you find an opposite branching, compound leafed tree, you can guess right away that it’s ash.

While those two methods of identifying trees are helpful, my favorite method was to smell and taste the tree. Mike taught us that if you find an alternate branching tree with compound leaves and yellow buds, you can crush the buds and if they smell like gin and tonic, then it’s a butternut hickory. Yellow birch, which grows only in healthy forests at higher elevations, smells like wintergreen when you scratch its bark.

I learned so much more than I can put in this short article. Many thanks to Mike Snyder and Brynne Lazarus for leading such an interesting, educational and fun hike.