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stoplight trees

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Every time I walk or drive down the street, I am amazed at the sight of the three ash trees across from my house. I've started calling them the stoplight trees.

September 23rd

I've been following their progress for a couple of weeks now. The girl ash tree on the left is still way ahead of the other two. Her leaves are mostly orangey-brown and a ton of them have fallen off the tree. The middle tree, which we recall is both male and female, looks just like the girl tree looked two weeks ago. It's leaves are mostly yellow and the fallen leaves are starting to pile up below it.


And the male ash tree on the right has still barely begun.

September 26th

A quick check today:

September 28th

I am still blown away by the fact that these are the exact same type of tree! Who would have thought that the sex of the tree would make such a difference in the fall?!

ashes on the first day of fall

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Tomorrow is the first official day of fall, but the maples and the ashes haven't been waiting for the calendar to change. The ashes have been particularly interesting to watch because the changes so far seem to be different for the boy and girl trees. Here's a picture of three ashes across the street.


The one in front is a male ash tree and is still almost entirely green. The one in the middle had both male and female flowers and is yellowing only in certain areas (the girl parts??). The last tree in the group is the girl. She started yellowing long before the other two and has orange leaves now. In fact, she's so far ahead that she also has a litter of fallen leaves beneath her!


There's nothing under the male trees. This reminds me of the spring, when the boy trees dropped all their polleny flowers everywhere and were surrounded by droppings, but it was nice and clean under this girl tree. I guess it's her turn to be messy now!

Farther down the street, the handsomest ash in the neighborhood is starting to yellow.


He has by far the fullest canopy of all the ashes around and was early to get his leaves. He's also on the earlier side amongst the boys to start changing colors. Hmmmm, interesting.

As for the girl down the street, who I've been following since she started making fruit in May, she's way ahead of any of the ashes around our house.


She has lost so many leaves! She's still holding on to her seeds though.


Wait, I think there are some of them down below, hidden among her leaf pile.


So is the tree losing everything all at the same time? Leaves and seeds? Oh boy!

And, last but not least, my tree. There were a few signs of early yellowing that I spotted last week.


A few leaves up close to the window and an entire twig out farther away over the street.


And today, he looks ready for fall's official arrival tomorrow.


The green is fading. The yellow is coming. (From the street side...I wonder if that's important.) Seems like my ash trees are very punctual. The flowers started to pop out of the buds on the very first day of spring and now the leaves are changing colors at the very start of fall. I like that in a tree.


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Last week, I noticed that the girl ash tree across the street was starting to look a little different from the boy ash trees around her. Some of her leaves were lighter. Well, now they are positively yellow!


That's my still very green boy ash tree in the foreground there. What a difference! You can see that there are one or two little yellowish leaves on my tree, but that's it.

Here's the girl again and the (mostly) boy tree next to her. 

He's the tree I mentioned last time with both female parts (samaras) and male parts (galls). He's got a little color on top, but there's still a marked contrast to the girl next door.

I'm so excited for fall!

plan b: other ashes

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The question still remains, what I am going to do now that the men with the pointy sticks have cut down all the branches and twigs from the tree that I've been watching since February. I can't reach any of the twigs on the tree outside the window any more and I can't see anything up close. Fall is coming and I want to watch!

My first thought was to take a look at some of the other ash trees in the neighborhood to see if any of them had some low branches that I could actually reach and examine closely.

Most do not.

But the girl ash tree across the street does have a few branches I can get to.


Interestingly, some of the features on her twigs are quite different from those on the twigs of my boy tree. The first difference I noticed was that this year's growth (the lighter colored bark extending up from the tip of the twig down to the first "knuckle" or ring-like bud scar) is much longer. Like four times as long! I wonder why she managed so much more growth than my tree did. Does it have something to do with the side of the street? Does this side get more sun? Or is this tree maybe healthier? Or is it because it is a female ash tree?

Another thing I noticed was that the developing buds on her twigs are much smaller than they were on my tree's twigs. Just try to find the lateral buds on the female ash tree! The lateral buds should be developing right above the spot where the leaf stem joins to the twig. 


Um, where are they? My tree already had big, fat buds that I speculated were close to being done developing. Look, here's how they looked on July 21st, when we came back from vacation.


See! Is this a boy/girl thing too? I'm thinking it might be. Last week, I picked up a twig that was blown off of another boy ash tree down the street during Hurricane Irene and look at the buds on this guy!


Apparently while the girl ash trees are making like 5,000 samaras and seeds, the boys are developing these big fat buds.


Hmmm, maybe the boy buds and girl buds are just different. I mean the boy buds have to make those flowers and all that pollen, so if the girls don't have to do that, maybe they don't need to make giant buds like this.


Speaking of boy stuff, remember how I found those sticky burr things on my tree way back in February and figured out that they were galls created by tiny mites growing in and feeding on the male ash tree flowers? Well, I never saw any new ones develop on my tree, but during my examination of the other ashes in the neighborhood this week, I discovered that a couple of the other boy ashes developed some new galls this spring.


See how they're green instead of the brown that the galls were on my tree? They're this green color in the season when they first develop. Then they turn brown and stay on the tree for a year or two. It's kinda gross to think that this tree had (has??) tiny bugs in it that made these. Ewwww. I wonder why there were (are??) so many of them on these trees across the street but not on my tree.


One more fascinating thing about this discovery. The tree that I found these on is a boy and a girl tree. Some ashes are like that, producing both girl and boy flowers. So this tree has areas where there are lots of samaras and then also areas like this where there are galls (which develop only in male flowers). And, if you look real close, you can see that the twig that these galls are on has big lateral buds growing right where the leaf stems attach to the tree. Well, I'll be darned!

girls mature faster than boys

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I've got boys in fifth grade, so I notice these things.

But I'm talking trees. Check this out! The ash trees around the neighborhood are once again revealing their gender. The boy ash trees, like the one on the left of this picture, are still deep green in color, but the girl ash trees, like the one on the right, are much lighter now.


Neat, right? If we look closer, we can see that some of the lighter color is coming from the large clusters of fruit that are hanging from the branches. They were always this paler green color. But that's not all that's causing this effect. A lot of the leaves on the female ash trees are turning yellow now. This is just not happening yet on the male trees.


So what's going on? Are the female trees really going to change sooner and maybe even lose those leaves sooner? Is the difference due to the fact that these trees are using up more nutrients to develop those samaras and seeds? Also, this might be a coincidence, but in my neighborhood all the female ash trees are smaller than the male ash trees. I wonder if the seed production might affect their growth.

in search of seed pods

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Now that we've checked in on my ash tree and on the chestnut down the street, let's see what the kooky honey locusts have been up to. Last time, I was starting to get confused/frustrated that I had yet to see any fruit on the honey locusts. I was eager to see if they had started to develop fruit after our month-long vacation.


Um, no. That's the honey locust right next to my tree. Still no fruit. Seriously? None? Ever hopeful, I kept walking to check out some other honey locusts elsewhere in the neighborhood. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, the honey locusts are dioecious like ash trees and have completely male and completely female trees. So this might just be a boy tree like my ash. Maybe.

We walked on toward the kids' school. Every fall, right at the beginning of the school year, we find seedpods galore all around here. My son even brought one in to kindergarten years ago for show and tell. (True story: Not knowing ANYTHING about trees, I had no idea what it was. I had to search on the internet to figure out that it was a seed pod. I never did figure out what kind of tree it was from. Now I know though!) So, I figured if there was going to be fruit growing on any honey locusts around the neighborhood, it was going to be here!


Result! Seed pods! And man, are they long already. I can hardly believe it. I hadn't spotted any real signs of fruit growing on the honey locusts before we left. So it did all that in one month. Cool!

Farther down the street I saw more seed pods on a honey locust I'd photographed before. In May, I'd spotted a birdie perched up among the creepy, jagged branches.


Now, the branch looks like this.


I love the way the seed pods hang down like little green bats. They're so thin and flat though. They make me think of Flat Stanley. Flat bananas for Flat Stanley.

Yeah, honey locusts are still weird.

let's hear it for the girl

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Finally, I managed to take a walk down the street with the camera to check in on the girl ash tree. She is looking quite different than my boy ash these days. My boy tree has no fruit of course, but she has lots of dangling clusters of samaras.


The samaras look a little longer than they did before we left. And there's definitely more of them. There also looks to be a narrow, longish seed inside now. Surprisingly, though, those green balls are also still there between the samaras. I thought they were part of the growing samaras and would disappear. Now I'm thinking maybe they are some part of the old flowers and are just shriveling up.

Another surprise on the lady ash is the color of some of her leaves.


Several of the leaves have turned completely yellow! Are these leaves dying? Did these leaves perhaps not survive the massive July heat waves as well as the others? Or is this a very early sign of changes to come in the fall? I imagine that things for the girl tree might progress a little differently than my boy tree as we approach fall. She's got to send those seeds off on their way before she's ready for a long winter's rest. I wonder if her leaves will change color earlier or later than those of the boy tree. And when exactly will she release her seeds? When are they "ripe"? How will she know?

girl stuff

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As we know, my ash tree is a boy. He's made his pollen-y flowers and I'm guessing he's all done with his part in the flower-fruit-seed process. Since he doesn't have much to tell me about the other half of the process, I thought I'd take a walk down the street and visit the girl ash tree to see what she's up to.

When I last took some pictures of her flowers (on May 3rd), they looked like little green tadpoles - round head, skinny tail - with curly tongues coming out of them - which I assume was some female flower part reaching out to catch pollen.


Two weeks later on the 17th, the female flowers looked like this:


Some of those tadpole heads now have a single short green leaf growing out of them. Even the flowers on the bottom right of the picture look like they are starting to elongate, with a tiny leaf tip beginning to protrude from the circular head. I think the tadpole head is really the ovary of the flower and these new leaves are actually the fruit of the ash tree. I remember from the tree id book we looked at last month that the fruit of the ash tree is a single samara (the maple tree fruit is a double samara, so think half of one of those!).

Thumbnail image for thetreebook4.jpg

This looks about right. Long finger-like flowers (which frustratingly seem to be mislabeled here as the male flowers) develop into the long single-winged samaras. The book says, "It looks like a tiny airplane propeller and grows in clusters on female trees." Here are the propellers just four days later on May 21st:


And some new ones starting to develop:


The close-up pictures reveal a sort of ugly, brown blob at the spot where the round head/ovary of the flower is swelling up. The fruit seems to be growing from the side or from under this. Here are some just breaking out of these brown shells.


Ick, they're starting to look like bugs to me! I'm sorry to say this to my girlfriend ash tree, but whole bunches of these really are kind of nasty looking.


I hadn't expected fruit development to look so messy. At first, I thought there was some kind of dirt or gunk stuck on the flowers. Maybe it was the pollen? But the samaras in the top right of the picture look much cleaner and neater. I guess the flowers/fruit in the front are simply in that awkward tween stage.

ash tree opposites

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boy meets girl

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Although Brookline's town tree inventory says that only about 4% of the town's street trees are ash trees, there are about 10 of them in the two blocks around our house.

my tree with three more ashes across the street

A few weeks after I first started to watch my tree, I began to suspect that these other trees were the same kind of tree as mine. Once my tree started to produce its little purple flowers however, I became doubtful. Only about half of the trees I'd identified as also being ash trees had these flowers. The others seemed to be growing some other kind of leafy something, most likely a totally different kind of flower. But now that the true leaves have started to grow on all these trees, I can see that they are indeed all ash trees. So why the different flowers?

To explain, I have to return to the mystery of the sticky burrs (those crazy brown popcorn-looking balls that I had originally spotted on a few of the other ashes and then discovered on my tree). The sticky burrs turned out to be galls, which are growths caused by a tiny mite that lays its eggs in the male ash tree flowers. Some ash trees, like mine, produce only male flowers. The male flowers are the purple pollen-producing clusters that were all over my tree.


Down the street, there is an ash tree that has entirely different looking flowers. The bark on this tree is the same as mine. The leaves are the same. The structure of the twigs and the pattern of growth are all the same. The only difference is the flowers.


These have to be the female flowers! They are like long fingers reaching out to catch the pollen on tiny red tips.


Another sign that this is a female ash tree is the fact that there are no droppings under this tree like there are under the male ash trees. The male trees like mine have recently shaken off all of their pollen-laden flowers and covered the sidewalks beneath them with little brown tree poops.

male ash tree surrounded by droppings

But if there are no pollen-producing flowers on this female tree, where does she get pollen for fertilization? Well... from the tree in the very next sidewalk cutout: a big all-male ash tree. Awwww, they're a couple!


After I discovered this little couple, I decided to take a closer look at the ash trees right around mine (there are 5 directly across the street). You can spot the female right away from how clean the sidewalk is beneath her. She's the one without a ring of poopy-looking flowers underneath her.


But here's the really fascinating thing. Of the five ashes across the street, 2 are boys like mine, there's the 1 girl in the middle, and the other two trees are -- get this! -- both.


They have obvious male flower clusters still hanging on some of their twigs but they also have tons of the finger-like female flowers. How cool is that?! I've said this before, but it bears repeating: trees are weird.

(I found this website really helpful in identifying the different ash tree flowers.)

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the girls vs. boys category.

galls and sticky burrs is the previous category.

honey locust is the next category.

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