"You don't know a tree til you know it naked." So says Sandy Mason, whose job title, horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, does scant justice to her wide knowledge of and appreciation for the natural world — to say nothing of her sense of humor.
But how do you know one tree from another when they're naked, which is to say, without their leaves?
I've got two suggestions:
One is to check out a recorded webinar, "Basic Winter Tree Identification," which will be played Wednesday in the auditorium at the Champaign County Extension office on North Country Fair Drive, beginning at 12:15 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.
The webinar was taught by Jay Hayek, who is a forestry specialist with UI Extension, and sponsored by the Illinois Forestry Association. I attended the live version of it this past week and found it very informative. As Hayek pointed out, tree identification can make up the bulk of semesters-long college courses, so the goal of the webinar was really to get participants started on building what he referred to as "their own visual library" of tree components important for ID.
My second suggestion for people who want to develop their capacity to identify trees without their leaves is to participate in the Naked Tree Walk, led (and named) by Mason, along with arborist and Master Naturalist Jean Burridge and Craig Kempher of the Champaign Park District.
The walk, which also is free and open to the public, will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday at Hessel Park in Champaign.
I spoke recently with Mason, who pointed out that the amazing diversity of trees at Hessel Park makes it an ideal spot for such an activity. There are no fewer than 28 different species represented there, including seven species of oaks.
Among the highlights at Hessel Park are trees that are native to Illinois but fairly unusual in our part of the state, such as yellow buckeye and black gum. In addition, truly magnificent examples of more common trees grow there — big, beautiful specimens of Kentucky coffeetree, scarlet oak and red maple.
The trees at Hessel Park also are quite accessible, thanks to the wide concrete sidewalk there. Participants should, of course, dress for the weather, since this is an entirely outdoor event. All who attend will receive a copy of the "Hessel Park Tree Walk" put out by the Champaign Park District, which features stunning hand drawings of tree features by Burridge.
Hayek's suggested resources for winter tree identification:
— "A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter," published by the Missouri Department of Conservation (available on the Web for $3).
— "Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs," by William M. Harlow (about $6).
— "Forest Trees of Illinois," published by the UI Extension ($10).
An additional tree note
A forester's stock answer to the question "How can I tell how old my tree is?" is "Cut it down and count the rings." That's because dating trees any other way involves varying levels of uncertainty.
Back in November, I called attention to the large bur oak in front of the Natural History Building at the UI. At that time, I said it was 180-some years old, referring to calculations that were based on borings done in summer 2011. More recently, a number of people have referred me to photographs from the 1890s that show a much smaller tree where the bur oak grows. Based on this evidence, it seems unlikely my tree is more than 120-some years old. It may still be the oldest living thing on campus, but it doesn't predate campus.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.