June 2011 Archives

the honeylocust, still a mystery

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Okay, so these are the trees I've been calling honey locusts. They're all up and down our streets around here. They're weird. But they are fascinating too.

For example, the growth on this one twig is over two feet long! The green stem of the new growth actually starts under the bunch of leaves on the left!



And look at the perfectly alternate arrangement of the compound leaves.


Left then right. Right then left. Cool!

And on another honey locust a few blocks away, I found a bug party.


Ew. I was looking at the leaves and spotted this mass of tiny black bugs. There were also a few ants crawling around on top of these smaller bugs. Are these maybe the aphids that I read about?

But what I never find on any of these honey locusts are flowers or fruit. Why not? If they are all male trees, they would have had some pollen-producing flowers. If they are female trees, they would be growing some fruit. The honey locusts did develop their leaves very late, so maybe they just haven't gotten to the flowers and fruit stage yet. I did, however, spot a couple of trees on another side of the street that I thought were also honey locusts and they are covered with flower/fruit clusters.


Is this also a honey locust? Is it ahead of the others? Is it a female tree? Or is it something else entirely? The brown things hanging down appear to be dried up flowers. Maybe it's a male tree? But the white parts left behind look like female parts where the fruit would begin to grow.


Wait, are those leaves really the same leaves as the honey locusts above? I'm so confused now! I'm no longer sure if these trees are all the same or are honey locusts at all. While I was looking for clues, my daughter decided that whatever they are, their fallen branches make for fabulous royal scepters.


All hail, queen of the trees! On her way to the playground.

ailanthus: supertree

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"Up in the sky, look! It's a plane. It's a bird. It's Ailanthus!"

The ailanthus tree by our parking space is clearly some sort of super tree.

"Faster than a speeding bullet!"

The new green shoot - that I estimated was 1 1/2 feet high on June 7th - has doubled in height in three weeks.


"More powerful than a locomotive!"

There are also two entire new plants that have somehow managed to grow right out of the concrete on the side of the house.


"Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!"

These new shoots are all the way on the other side of the two-car parking area from the tree by the way. The seeds must have been dropped there from the huge canopy above. The tree is dropping its flowers now in fact, covering the ground (and the cars) with pollen.


"Smellier that cat pee!"

You might recall that I learned from Wikipedia that the male pollen-producing ailanthus flowers smell like cat pee. Well now our whole parking area smells like that. And the car. I like to think that this is all for some higher purpose.

"And who, disguised as a mild mannered and stinky tree in a great metropolitan city, fights the never ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way."

I wonder what its Kryptonite is?

tree work ahead

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We're leaving tonight to visit grandma and grandpa for four weeks in Germany! But don't worry that all the tree work here will stop. There are still lots of tree pictures in my camera and lots of tree questions in my head. I'll be posting them while we're away. And I'm sure I'll find some intriguing trees in Germany to take pictures of and share.

I will miss our tree though.


I wonder how much it will change in a month. Without me watching it.

shade tree

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Lookie, my tree makes shade now! It's pretty good shade too. Even with those dead branches.

I've started looking at the shade from other trees now. Not that I'm comparing or anything. Wink. Wink. This is the shade from the next tree down the street, a honey locust.


I'm impressed with the shade I see under the honey locusts. Their long compound leaves are made up of leaflets that are quite small and they're more spread out than the leaves on my ash. The canopy just doesn't look as full and thick as that of an ash tree. And yet, the shade is pretty darn shady. This particular honey locust is bigger than my ash, but the shade is definitely comparable.

And then there's the next tree down the street, a little sycamore.


This is the cutest little tree. I was surprised by how sparse the leaves were when they finally arrived. Just individual little simple leaves on branches that don't seem to want to come together to close up the gaps. The canopy is much more open than even the honey locust. But even for so little a tree, there is still a nice amount of shade there. Certainly enough to provide some relief during a walk home on a hot summer day.

a fruit is a suitcase for seeds

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I've spent the last several days packing for our summer trip to Germany to visit the in-laws. We have suitcases everywhere! So it seemed appropriate today to read  A Fruit Is a Suitcase for Seeds for our Saturday story time.


The book is by Jean Richards and is adorably illustrated by Anca Hariton. In addition to happily colored paintings of plants and their fruit, Hariton depicts little people and their suitcases along the bottom of each page. I love this image of plants packing up everything they need for a long trip. What kinds of things do you think a plant needs to grow in a new place? What kinds of things do you need?


Richards tells us, "Seeds often travel to faraway places." Just like us. In fact, all those suitcases remind me of our pile at the airport!


"The fruit is like a suitcase for the seeds. It protects them on their trip." Now that is a well-packed suitcase!


"Some fruits carry one big seed inside them.... A cherry is one of these fruits." Look, the little people have suitcases filled with one giant seed. Do you sometimes bring one big thing with you when you go on a trip?


"Some fruits have many small seeds inside them. An apple is one of these fruits." I wonder what little things the people have in their suitcases? What little things do you pack in your suitcase when you're traveling?


"Many berries...carry their seeds on the outside! Raspberries do too."
And now the people have suitcases with lots of pockets on the outside. Does your suitcase have pockets? What do you like to keep in there?


"I bet you didn't know that every time you eat a peach, a cherry, an avocado...an apple, an orange, a pea..."


"...you're really eating a suitcase!" Because the seeds are meant to float away in the wind or water, to be picked up by animals or people, and be taken on a journey. And at the end of their journey, they'll need to unpack like the little person at the bottom of the picture. Will she have everything she needs? Will the seed? Will we?!! I've got to get back to packing....

oak tree

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I've been wondering about the oak trees. They were late to start developing leaves. Well, later than my ash tree and the maple trees. But I did notice when they got their flowers and leaves and began littering the ground with their pollen in May (a couple of weeks after my tree dropped all of its flowers). Unfortunately for me, however, the oak trees in the neighborhood are quite a bit higher than the other trees. I haven't been able to get a good look at their leaves or twigs or anything! Then on Monday, Mother Nature helped out once again by leaving a fallen oak twig right on my path to the boys' school. You know what happened next (anyone keeping count of how many of these things I've dragged home so far? I hope not.)

So let's take a closer look at an oak tree, shall we?


The oak leaf. I love the rich green color! And this thing is as large as my entire hand! That's pretty big for a single (not compound) leaf! Now, I never would have been able to identify an oak tree by its leaves before my science class. And it wasn't that we learned about oak leaves either. We had just started this tree project and were asked to draw a twig. I chose the only twig on the table that still had leaves on it - brown, shriveled leaves (well,it was January!).


Someone told me it was from an oak tree. And from then on, I could recognize the oak trees by the dried-up, curled-up lobed leaves hanging from the twigs. But I hadn't ever had a fresh, green one in my hand before. Now that I had the real thing, I was able to go to my favorite tree site and identify it better.


So it looks like I could have White oaks in my neighborhood, although my twig's leaf doesn't have lobes that are quite as long as those drawn here. That's the closest choice though. Definitely an oak. UPDATE: Wait a minute! The twig could be from a Red oak! If perhaps the tips of the lobes on the leaves were once "bristled" (which seems to mean pointy) before they got all brown and yucky, then that would make them Red oaks.


So, look at how the little veins in the leaf all come out of that center line. They're arranged in an alternate pattern (one on one side then one on the other side a little ways up). And lookie, that's also exactly how the leaves grow on the twig!!


How cool is that?! I love how these patterns seem to repeat over and over in a tree's structure. (I love that about my ash tree too, with it's opposite arrangement of twigs and leaves - everything in pairs, always in pairs).

Another thing I found impressive: the twig above is almost all new growth! Just that tiny tip at the bottom is gray and bark-like. That's a lot more than my ash tree twigs have grown this year. Do oaks grow more each year than ashes? Do larger trees have more growth each year? 

I found another twig on the ground that had several smaller offshoots with smaller leaves and each one of them also has growth longer than that on the twigs of my ash.


And growing just above each stem where a new leaf is attached is a tiny bud, just like on my ash tree!


And at the tip, there are three of them.


Wait, are those buds or maybe acorns? Where are the acorns? Will they come later? Are they on older twigs? Oooh, I want to see acorns!

aging leaves

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It's only the second day of summer and already the leaves on my tree are starting to look old.


The edges are curling and wrinkling.


Most of the leaves I've been measuring seem to have stopped growing (like this one above). The longest leaf I can find is almost 8" long though!


And look at how much darker they are now than they were when they first developed (the picture below is from May 3rd).


Awww, they're all grown up now. Sniff. Sniff.

buddy system

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The new buds on the green sections of the twigs are amazing.


They're really starting to look like the buds that were on the twigs back in February.


I wonder how much longer they'll continue to grow. One thing that seems to be happening is that they are becoming completely brown (like the buds above). Many of the terminal buds still actually look like this:


Two sides are green just like the shoots (you can still see a narrow green stripe in the bud in the first picture above). And the two sides that are green are precisely the sides where new shoots would grow. Cool! I wonder if this one will develop another pair of shoots before it is done? I'm guessing not, because this twig already has 5 pairs of leaves on it and I have yet to see a twig with more than 5 pairs of leaves.

For example, this is one of the twigs with the most growth and it's got 5 pairs of leaves branching off of it.


And here's the twig closest to my window.


5 pairs of leaves. And the twig next to it:


1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

There are plenty of smaller twigs that have fewer than 5 leaf pairs, but all of these larger twigs have 5. I feel like 5 may be some sort of maximum number for new growth. Could it be that my tree has all the leaves now that it is going to get this year? And all of its new buds for next year?

it runs in the family

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B's class is growing seeds and he's keeping track of the growth every day. I'm so proud.

the lorax

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It was just a matter of time until I got around to this one... today's storybook is the save-the-trees classic from Dr. Suess, The Lorax.


Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I will say that this is not my favorite Dr. Seuss book. I don't remember ever reading it as a kid and it seems a little overly preachy to me reading it now. But then again, my favorite Seuss book was The Sneetches, whose story about having "stars upon thars" is no less preachy than the Lorax, so I'm not going to quibble. Plus, I never could resist a good Seuss rhyme!

The Lorax has this long, strange, dark opening where a young boy discovers the home of the Once-ler at the far end of town and tries to get him to tell his story. The Once-ler's story is the history of this desolate place "where the wind smells slow-and-sour...and no birds ever sing except old crows." As the Once-ler begins his tale, the landscape is transformed into a place full of color and fantastical Seuss creations: "It all started way back... Way back in the days when the grass was still green.... And I first saw the trees! The Truffula Trees!"


Way back then, the Brown Bar-ba-loots lived in the shade of the Truffulla trees and the Humming-Fish hummed in the rippling pond. But this book is really about the trees. "Those trees! Those Truffulla trees! All my life I'd been searching for trees such as these."

The Once-ler knew just what to do with those trees.


Why chop them down and knit a Theed, of course! You may be asking, what is a theed? That's just the question the Lorax had. He popped up right out of the stump and demanded to know just what "you've made of my Truffula tuft."


The Lorax speaks for the trees, you see, because they cannot speak for themselves. He asks the question he would like us to consider: just what is so important that someone would cut down a tree to make it? The Once-ler doesn't have a very good answer. He replies that "A Theed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!" He doesn't really know what people will use it for, but if they'll pay money for it, that's all he needs.

I really like Seuss's play on the idea of need here. What do we really need? Do we need a Theed? Do we need all the many things we make out of trees? Is it mere greed that we confuse for need? Is is possible that we might need trees more than Theeds? The Once-ler isn't thinking about any of these things. All he sees is that money grows on those trees: "Here's a wonderful chance for the whole Once-ler Family to get mighty rich!"


As his Theed factories grow larger, the sound of the singing Swomee-Swans is replaced by the sound of the chopping of trees and the cries of the Lorax. You see, the Bar-ba-loots need the Truffula fruits and the Humming-Fish need water that isn't so smeary. So off they must go in search of a new home.


 "BUT business is business," replies the Once-ler. And Business must get bigger. That is what it needs.


It needs more and more Theeds, more and more trees, more and more needs. Until there are no more trees and no more need for Theeds.

When the last Truffula tree was gone, the Once-ler family packed up and left the Once-ler alone in the dreary place he'd made. The Lorax left him too. He watched his buildings fall apart and watched the Grickle-Grass grow. I guess Grickle-Grass is really a weed, something that no-one needs and absolutely no good for making Theeds.

The Once-ler has had a lot of time to think about those things the Lorax said so long ago. And now that the boy has come, the Once-ler understands. "Truffula trees are what everyone needs." And he throws down the last of the Truffula seeds. 


 Yes, we need the trees. But only the Lorax understood what the trees need. They need someone to speak for them. They need us. "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Alright, you know what you need to do....

is this a dogwood?

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This tree near my children's school suddenly produced these gorgeous flowers about three weeks ago. Since I don't know anything about flowers, I had no idea what kind of tree this was. But the flowers are so beautiful and so long lasting that I get more curious about the tree every time I walk past.  Most of the tree guides I've seen online have you use the leaves or the fruit to identify a tree. When I tried to id this one (at What Tree is It? of course!) based on its flowers, I came up with dogwood.


But I thought that dogwood flowers had to look like this:


Four petals with notched, burnt-looking tips. Right? I swear I learned this when I was a kid. This tree's flowers do look very similar with their four petals and green centers, but there are no notched tips. Then I remembered the dogwood we saw at the arboretum yesterday. It didn't have notched little tips on its flowers either. They were all perfectly pointy.


That was a Kousa Dogwood. I wonder if this one is too? Hmmm...

field trip: the arnold arboretum

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School's almost out, which means we have just enough time to squeeze in one last field trip! Today we're off to the Arnold Arboretum, which is only about 10 minutes away from us. We'll be back in time for lunch!

The arboretum has some fun family activities including their Tree-of-the-Month program which we'll be focusing on today. Each month, they pick a tree species, put together a little handout about it, and hide a letterbox by one of those trees somewhere in the arboretum. The handout provides directions which lead you past other interesting sites and then to the letterbox tree. If you don't know what letterboxing is, don't worry; neither did I! It's sort of like geocaching. Someone hides a box in a public place like a park and lists its location in a directory. Inside the box, there is a rubber stamp and a notepad. If you have your own stamp, you stamp it in the notepad and add your name to the list of folks who have found the box. Then you can stamp the letterbox stamp in your own notepad to keep track of where you've been. The letterboxing makes the hunt for the tree of the month very exciting for kids. My own daughter couldn't wait to go looking for "the box tree"!

This month's tree is the Japanese stewartia.


The directions on the handout told us that to find the letterbox tree, we first had to walk down Linden Path.


Initially we found oak trees along the path, but then we came to the lindens. I know nothing about lindens so I only knew we'd found them by looking at the tags on the trees.


Every tree in the arboretum is labeled with a cool tag like this. It tells the species of the tree, how old the tree is (did you know there are over 700 trees in the arboretum that are 100 years old or more?!), and information about where it came from. This tag told me that this tree was a Bigleaf linden. It was, however, very little.


A few steps farther on the path led us to a Littleleaf linden that was very big.



The Linden Path ended at the Shrub and Vine Garden where my daughter fell in love with the wisteria archways.


She kept calling them lilacs and they did look like lilacs with their clustered, purpley flowers.


But the cool tag told me they were wisteria. And a close-up look revealed that these flowers are quite different from the lilac flowers I've seen in the neighborhood. Instead of blooming on branches that grow up, these are in bundles that hang down. And instead of flowers that are open, these are funny little folded up tube-like flowers. So wisteria is not a lilac, but don't try to tell my daughter that.

After our trip through the Shrub and Vine Garden, we were back on the main path and were directed to a Japanese stewartia across from a bench.


We recognized it from the mottled looking bark that the handout told us to look out for. But we still checked for the tag. (Note: it's very helpful to have a small person to help you find the tree tags!)


Bingo! The directions told us to continue past this stewartia to the dogwood tree behind it. Well, that could only be this one:


Look at those amazing flowers! It's like it's covered in snow or something. Fabulous. But we must continue on to the letterbox tree, my daughter reminds me. Okay, the directions say 15 more steps and we'll find another stewartia with the box.


Is it this one? It's a stewartia. (We can totally recognize it now!) But no box. Wait, there's another one....


and there's a piece of wood covering a crack in the trunk....


Just move this and...


the box!!

We opened it up. We did the stamp. We high-fived. We were bitten by mosquitoes.


Then we packed everything back into its waterproof baggies and put the box back in the tree for the next person to find (maybe you - bring bug spray).

My daughter and I can't wait for July so we can search for the next letterbox tree! In the meantime, we might go back to see the Explorers Garden. My fourth grade boys just finished a unit in school on explorers. I wonder what they would think of plant explorers like E.H. Wilson. We could look up the original countries where he collected the plants on a map and talk about how they were brought back to Boston. The handout for the Explorers Garden says that after one of the plants was collected in 1911, the team was hit by a landslide and Wilson was seriously injured causing them to return early. Both he and the hemlock seedling survived. Exciting stuff!

a weight problem

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I'm amazed at how the branches on my tree continue to become fuller and fuller, filling out the empty space with more and more leaves. Here's how one branch obscured the view of houses across the street on May 23rd:


The foliage was a little thicker six days later on May 29th.


On June 7th, there was even more green, especially close to the camera, encroaching on my view of the branch.


And today it looks like this:


And did you notice something else changing? It's sinking! If you look back at the pictures, you can see that the branch is hanging lower now than it used to. I've noticed this about the one twig I've been watching too. It's the twig closest to my living room window and it used to stick up straight right in front of the window. Now it hangs so low it's almost out of view and I have to lean down to measure the leaves.


For a direct comparison, check out these two pictures of the tree taken from my window. The first was taken on the first day of this blog, February 8th. My twig is the one on the right that is coming toward the window.


Four months later, on June 10th, there are leaves everywhere and my twig is weighed down so much that its leaves are barely in the picture on the bottom right. I would never have imagined that it would move so much! 


Amazing! I wonder exactly how heavy all those leaves are?

fallen fruit

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I have ash tree fruit literally falling at my feet!


My daughter and I spotted this branch lying in the street right in front of our car. That side of the street is home to a large maple tree and a male ash tree (like mine), but I quickly noticed that this was a female ash tree with twigs full of developing fruit. The only female ash tree around is all the way across the main street. I don't know how this branch got over to me, except perhaps that it knew that I would be the only person in the neighborhood who would be thrilled to find it lying there!

My daughter helped hold it up so I could take a few pictures of it. (Can you find her in there? She was very helpful this time, but she is getting a little tired of my enthusiasm for trees. When we are out walking, I'll often stop and point out something interesting about a tree. She will look inquisitively and listen thoughtfully and then say worriedly, "Don't take a picture of the tree!" A few days ago, she was telling daddy that she was a very nice girl. Her proof: "I let mommy take pictures of trees." Passers-by were confused.)


So anyway, look at all that fruit!! We snapped off a small twig so we could bring it home and take a closer look at the fruit.  


All those dirty-looking black tufts I'd seen on the female ash tree three weeks ago seem to be gone now. Now there are only green tufts. I still don't know what those are. Are they the same things I spotted before, just having changed color? It doesn't look like the fruit has grown directly out of them. Maybe those just haven't grown a fruit yet and the others have dropped off? Maybe the fruit grows out beneath them? Or are they merely some part of the old flower? They look better in green - that's all I know.

Looking at just one group of fruit, I can also see that these clusters grow much differently than the leaves do. Each stem seems to have propagated several of these green puff balls and several long samaras (the actual fruit).


Even weirder is the way these stems grow. They don't branch off of a central stem in the lovely opposite pattern that I see repeated over and over in my tree. Nope. These flower stems seem to just shoot out in all directions from one spot, all crazy-like.


I have seen something like this in my own tree though. It's just like the "explosion of branches" that I noticed when I drew my tree back in February. While the twigs seem to have a very neat opposite pattern, the branches often look like this with five or six of them coming out from the same spot on one limb.

It also looks like the female tree is like the male ash tree in that it grows all of its flowers from the lateral buds along the side of the twig but its leaves from the terminal buds at the tips. See? There's the new shoot growing from the tip of the twig in the picture below. And the flower clusters are all coming out from the sides.


This arrangement with leaves over the fruit sort of reminds me of the maple trees with their big broad leaves making a canopy over the hanging helicopter fruit below. Does this leaf cover protect the fruit underneath in some way? The ash tree fruit looks tucked away behind the leaves. Do they not need as much light as the leaves do? Do they need any?

The fruit itself is long and thin and relatively uniform looking. Where is the seed, I wonder.


From the maple tree book, I learned that the wings of the samara are more for dispersion than for holding the seed. So will the seed be down near the stem? Is it in there already?

a tree is nice

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I was away over the weekend, so we're having a special edition of Saturday story time on Monday. And on a special note: this is my 100th post here on the tree blog! We're only in mid-June and still have summer and fall to see, so I hope we'll have a hundred more posts before this blog has run its course. But now, on to the story...

This week's story, A Tree Is Nice by Janice May Udry and illustrated by Marc Simont, won the Caldecott Medal in 1957. It looks at trees from a child's perspective, explaining their appeal in a child's terms. Why do we like trees, the book asks. Well, trees are nice.


 They fill up the sky.


And make everything beautiful.


Even one tree is nice.


Because it has leaves that whisper in the summer breeze and then fall into playful piles in autumn.

A tree is nice because we can climb it, we can swing in it, and we can sit in its shade.


A tree is nice for a house too.


But most of all, a tree is nice to plant.


You say to people, "I planted that tree." They think that's nice, so they go home and plant a tree too.

Have you ever planted a tree? I think that's something the tree blog needs to do before we're through.

from flower to fruit: the horse chestnut

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Remember the beautiful flowers of the horse chestnut tree down the street?


I walk by the tree when I bring my kids to school each morning and pick them up every afternoon. After having seen how quickly other trees had lost their flowers, I'd been watching the lovely blooms of this tree to see how long they'd last and what would happen next. Early this month, the tree began losing its flowers.


But, interestingly, just the red ones. While the flowers with red centers were shriveling up and falling off, forming piles under the tree, those with yellow centers were still on their stems. The white petals with their eyelash-like thingies were falling away, leaving only yellow-green balls with a single filament sticking out. Five days later, there were no more signs of the red flowers at all.


So, are these the female flowers? Is this the fruit developing? You know, I've seen pictures of chestnuts where the spiny outer casing is green, just like these little things.


Are these little flower centers the beginning of chestnuts? They sure look like it!

how does 2011 measure up?

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Well, after a couple of days, the twig I found on the ground and brought in the other day has started to look pretty sad. With the leaves drying out and curling up, I found myself noticing the twig itself more and remembered that I could tell how much a twig had grown each year by looking for the rings or knuckles (they're actually scars from the old terminal bud).


The current growth ends at the tip (the top circle) and goes down to where the green stem ends. That's the first ring on the twig. Going down to the second ring, we can see that last year's growth was just a bit more than the twig managed to grow this year before it was blown off of the tree. The two previous years both look to have been years with smaller growth. And then, four years ago, the growth was much bigger. I recall that when I looked for rings on my twig before, I noticed that the growth from four years ago - 2007 - was like three times a long as the other years. I remember looking up the weather for that year and seeing that it was one of the warmest years on record. Having noticed the same growth pattern on this twig, I thought I'd take a closer look at the temperature that spring. I looked up the high temperatures from April 18th, when I first spotted green tips sprouting from the terminal buds on my tree, through June 9th for 2007 (blue) and 2011 (red). I made a little graph so I could see exactly how much warmer 2007 was than this year.


You can see that there are barely any points where the 2011 graph is above that of 2007. And it looks like it was significantly warmer for a long period in early May of 2007. From watching the development of my tree, I'd guess that that is a key period for early leaf and shoot development. That might account for the difference. But still, 2011 doesn't look too bad actually. I wonder if 2011 could end up being a big growth year after all. Who says these stems are done growing?

I snapped a picture of the twig closest to my living room window so I could compare the new growth this year with the previous year's growth. 


This year's growth ends where the green ends and last year's growth ends at the ring at the bottom of the picture. Judging from the photo, I'd say it hasn't yet grown as much as it did last year. 


I pulled out the tape measure to be sure. Last year's growth measures about 3 1/2" and this year's growth was 2" last time I checked. Is this stem really going to get 1 1/2" longer? The leaf cluster already has five pairs of leaves. If it keeps growing, will the shoot grow more leaf pairs or will these grow farther apart from one another (like the leaflets seem to be doing)?

A quick look at another twig near my window also shows that 2011 hasn't yet lived up to 2010.

And a look at the temperatures would suggest that 2011 won't live up to 2010 either.


Again, that blue line is constantly above this year's red line! I wonder if this is coincidence or if the warmer temperatures in these crucial weeks really did make the difference.

it's all relative

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June started with a big storm. The tree was whipped up against the window over and over and the boys stayed up to watch the lightning. In the morning, we noticed that a broken branch was hanging off of the little sycamore tree down the street and found twigs from my tree littering the ground. I brought a couple of twigs from my tree inside to study more closely. (I've never taken anything off of my tree - I just couldn't bring myself to destroy even a tiny piece - so I was kind of excited about being "allowed" to take these inside to examine.)


This twig was so interesting because all of leaves its leaves are squashed together pointing in the same direction. They weren't open like the leaves I see from my window. I wonder if this branch might have actually been hanging upside down? Whether they were pointing up or down or were crowded on one side, the leaves have clearly grown this way. Looking at the stem, I can see that instead of having the leaf stems grow in truly opposite directions, each one curves over in the one direction.


This view of the twig also provides a great look at the current growth. The new growth is the green stem at the end of the twig. Look at all that that's shot out of the twig in the last month and a half! This twig also has a tiny twiglet branching off of it with proportionally smaller growth.

The new stems on the tree seem to be similar, with larger twigs having more growth. Here's another tiny twiglet:


 And some longer growth on a larger twig:


The longest growth I can see from my window is on a twig I can't reach. It looks to have grown about 4" so far this spring!



Well, it seems impressive until you walk by the Ailanthus. Wanna see how much it's grown this spring?


That's about a foot and a half so far! Dang.

PS - In the same four months, my boys have each grown 3/4".

ash fruit

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Time to check in with our girl down the street to see how she's doing with our ash tree fruit. (You may recall that the tree I'm watching is a male tree, so I have to visit the female tree on the next block to watch this part of the process.) On May 21st, I was able to spot a few of the female flowers just beginning to grow long leaf-like fruit.


Ten days later, there were many clusters of recognizable samaras (single-winged fruit, like half of a maple helicopter thingie).


They look like little oars for a paddle boat, don't they?! My favorite tree id site, What Tree is It?, points out the subtle differences between the fruit of different types of ash trees.


Judging from the fully formed fruit as it looks on the tree today, I'd say that our girl here is a white ash!


This is the same conclusion I made about my tree a month ago, when it seemed that the number of leaflets on the leaves on my tree could only mean that it is a white ash.

sky tree

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Story time is back! After last week's field trip to the art museum, I thought it would be nice to read Sky Tree: Seeing Science Through Art by Thomas Locker.


In the his introduction, Locker explains, "Through storytelling, art appreciation, and scientific exploration, Sky Tree attempts to reach both the heart and the mind." The following pages depict the same tree in the same location, but as the sky and the seasons change, the scene is transformed.

It all begins with a tree alone on a hill in the summertime.


Locker asks, "When you look at this painting...can you remember how you felt on a perfect summer day?" He poses one question on each page to help kids think about how the painting makes them feel about the tree or the sky or the seasons. He encourages kids to really look at and experience the paintings, rather than just say, hey there's the tree again. (And isn't that what we do when we see trees every day: we walk on past without really looking at them?)


"What makes this painting different?" asks Locker. How has the tree changed? How has the sky changed? How would it feel to stand under this tree now? What do you think is going to happen next?


"Is the tree dying?" he asks. No, it's just losing its leaves like so many trees do in the fall. "Why does this painting make you feel sad?" Locker wonders. It is sad to see the leaves falling from the tree leaving only bare twigs behind, but we know they'll be back just like we know that spring and summer will be back. In time.


"How does this painting capture the stillness of a snowy day?" I love the quiet after a snowstorm when there no cars on the road and footsteps are silent in the snow. Don't you? I also love it when icicles form around the branches turning sleeping trees into crystal sculptures. 


"How does this painting show that winter is ending?" Like the painting on the cover of the book, Locker really plays with the outline of the tree on the sky here. Although the tree is bare, the clouds behind it blocking the sun suggest the leaves that will soon be there to make shade for a picnic.


"Does this painting make you feel hopeful?" The sunrise here is beautiful. In the back of the book Locker briefly discusses each of the paintings. For this one he says, "This painting almost makes you squint." It's so true! It reminds me of studying my tree this spring. Looking up at the early leaves, I had to squint to see the new tiny bits of green in the bright sun. 


"Now the tree is full and round again." The tree has returned to the way it was on that first summer day. But is the picture exactly the same? Is the tree exactly the same from year to year? I wonder what has changed. How have you changed in the last year?

The final painting in the book is called the sunset tree. Locker uses it to talk about the connection between the tree and the sky, asking kids to think about why the book is called Sky Tree. The tree is painted entirely in shadow, so the focus shifts to the sky and its brilliant colors, full of light and power and magic.  


There's one more amazing image of trees and sky that you have to see! Check out Frans Lanting's photo of Camel Thorn trees from a recent issue of National Geographic. The surreal orange sky makes the photo look like a painting! This article talks about the photo and contains more stunning images from the same photographer. And there are even more photos of the beautifully strange landscapes in Namibia's Namib-Naukluft National Park here. (Thanks to Paul for the link!)

tree of heaven

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I think I have figured out the identity of the mystery tree with the enormous roots and reddish compound leaves that towers over the other trees by our parking space.


It turns out to be an Ailanthus tree (or Tree of Heaven). We looked at a twig from this type of tree in my science class (the class that got me started writing this blog). Our instructor described it as a "kindergarten tree," because all of its features are very large, making it easy to observe the typical characteristics of a twig. Look at those enormous leaf scars!


I had noticed this skinny Ailanthus twig growing near our parking spot between the tree with the nest in it and the one with the enormous roots. But it wasn't until I recognized that the leaves on that twig were the same as those on the tall tree with the enormous roots, that I realized that the larger tree must also be an Ailanthus tree. 


In fact, I think the smaller twigs may really just be suckers from the larger tree. Tree suckers are also called basal shoots (as if anyone would choose to use that term over sucker!) and are new shoots that develop from the base of a tree. And sure enough, that's just where these twigs are coming from.


These suckers can grow to become entire new trees, sometimes even competing with the original tree for nutrients and light (although often a tree will produce suckers when the main tree is damaged, sort of as a replacement).

Now, Ailanthus is kind of known as a weed tree. It likes to take over an area, both below (with large roots, as we've seen) and above (by growing taller than its surrounding trees and blocking their sunlight - hmmm, seen that too). Suckers are another way that this tree can take over. The wikipedia description reads like a observation of my tree: "suckers that can damage pavements" - check; "capable of forming thick blankets of roots" - check; "the male flowers have a strong odour [which] tends to resemble the smell of strong cat urine or the spray of a male cat" - oh my, is that what I smell in the car sometimes on particularly pollen-y days? That's from that tree?!

 So I'm convinced, but a check on my favorite site, What Tree is It?, confirms my identification.


Lookie, there: funny bumps at the bottom of each leaf.



And broad, flat, pinnately compound...uh, what that said...leaves!



By the way, the tree behind the Ailanthus suckers - the one with the nest - appears to be some sort of chestnut. I'm not swearing to that just yet, but the leaf is a good indicator. I'll leave it to you to check this one...


i see dead branches

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The more the leaves on my tree grow, the more apparent it is how many of the branches are dead.


The branches on the top left of the picture are the ones I often take a photo of to follow how the tree fills out. But right below them are a whole bunch of dead branches. They've never had any buds. They've never changed. They're the lowest branches on the tree (about 8 feet up). Are they dangerous? Could they break off more easily? Should someone prune them? Could that actually help the tree?

What really surprised me, however, is how many of the branches in the crown are dead.


That just makes me sad.

this test smells good

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I don't remember much from the time when I was in elementary school, but one thing I do remember is when we'd get a quiz that was right off the ditto machine. It was usually slightly damp,with that faded bluish type, and had that strong ditto smell. Dittos seemed so fresh and clean and homemade.

picture from Popthomology

This memory provides a stark contrast to my memory of tests in college, where we used computerized, paper-cut inducing, buy-your-own-and-bring-them-on-test-day scantron sheets.


This whole stroll down memory lane is really just a way of saying, it's test time on the tree blog! I wanted to come up with an assessment that wasn't about memorizing vocabulary words or choosing the best answer from a group of intentionally similar and tricky choices. Instead, I wanted this assessment to be in keeping with the way I've been learning about trees. And, if possible, I'd like it to smell good.

So here's what I came up with:


These are some lilacs that broke off of a nearby lilac tree in a windy rainstorm several weeks ago. I spotted them on the ground and wondered how much I could figure out about lilacs just from observing this one twig. I brought the twig home, put it in some water, and examined it for a while. So, let me tell you some of what I learned about lilac trees....

First, let's look at the leaves. The lilac tree has broad leaves (that just means that it has leaves and not needles). They are single leaves (not compound leaves like my ash tree), which are not lobed (like the maple leaf), with smooth margins (unlike the toothed edges of my tree's leaves). They are symmetrical, with an oval shape and pointed tip. The veins branch off the main center vein at different points rather than all branching from the base (as in this leaf from a Japanese maple).

Looking at the way the leaves and flower clusters are growing out from the stem suggests to me that the lilac tree has an opposite branching pattern. There are pairs of leaves growing off the stem from the same spot in opposite directions. The twig, too, seems to have this same pattern, although it is slightly different from the opposite pattern of the ash tree that I've been following.


My ash tree always has two opposing stems growing out of one main twig, which continues in the center. It looks like this. But the twigs of the lilac tree seem to often simply split into two opposite branches (as seen at the bottom of the above picture). The picture below shows how one twig ended with two terminal buds which opened up to grow two shoots that held flowers. Notice how the twig does not continue in the center.


The green stems in this picture however do have a structure more similar to my ash tree, where the center stem continues. I'm thinking that the lilac twigs may split into two just at the tips. Another interesting thing I notice in this picture is that some buds have opened up to produce leaves and some have opened up to grow flowers. The flowers and the leaves do not appear on the same stems. I wonder if only the terminal buds are producing the flowers, while all the lateral (side) buds are producing leaves. I've seen that on some trees in the neighborhood (of course, my ash tree is just the opposite, with the terminal buds only producing the leaves).

Now, let's take a look at those flowers.


The lilac flowers themselves are, true to their name, a beautiful pale lilac color. They each have four petals and grow in clusters. One flower stem has many pairs of opposite branches that continue up the stem. Each one of these branches produces one or even more flowers. This creates the long oval bundle of flowers that are typical of lilacs. The center of the flower holds the various girl and boy parts. I couldn't get a great close-up, but I'm thinking that the yellow center may be the male pollen-producing parts. If we look closer at the stems where flowers have already fallen off, we see only a long, white structure remaining.


I'm guessing that this is the female part of the flower: the ovary that would produce the fruit. There's no need for the male part of the flower to stick around, so it makes sense that this is the only part the tree would keep. I wonder what the fruit will look like.... UPDATE: I walked past the spot where I found the lilac twig and found some developing fruit on the tree!


I see one large seed-looking fruit developing. It looks like the long white things have disappeared or shriveled up (see the top middle of the picture) and these little seed things are growing out of the buds now. Fascinating!

Okay, time to check my work! This is a little tough because most tree id keys that I can find online do not include the lilac. This site details the characteristics of the lilac tree's leaves and mentions most of the details I identified along with a few others. And this site describes the main characteristics of the entire lilac tree, including the bark, which I didn't discuss. This page provides a thorough description of the lilac tree which includes many details on the male and female flower structures and the fruit. And even if you don't look at any of those, you MUST check out this page from microscopy-uk that has amazing pictures of all the structures in the lilac flower! Mind blowing!

So, how'd I do?

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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