Lacebark Trees–Species of Similarities and Contrasts

While the lacebark elm is easy to transplant, the lacebark pine requires patience.

Although a tropical tree in Australia is known as the lacebark tree, it appears to only grow in hardiness zones 9 and above, limiting its growth to warm coastal areas in the US. Two other species of tree, both from China, come in a lacebark version, the Lacebark Elm  (Ulmus parvifolia) and the Lacebark Pine (Pinus bungeana).

The elm version, also known as Chinese elm, has been introduced to much of the midsection of the United States. Although it is considered invasive in some areas, it has also been considered a good alternative to Siberian elms, which are more weedy. According to The Tree Book: Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes and Gardens (Dirr, Michael and Warren, Keith, 2019) this elm is useful in stressed environments and has been planted in parking lots, streets, and in parks. It is resistant to both Dutch elm disease and the elm leaf beetle as well as black leaf spots. Hardy from zones 5 through 10, it doesn’t drop its leaves until well into winter, and as may be expected from its name, its trunk is a major focal point when the bark exfoliates to reveal multiple colors.

Lacebark elm trunk
Lacebark elm trunk

The Tree Book features write-ups on thirteen different cultivars. Another somewhat unusual use of the species is in Bonsai. The leaves may be eaten cooked or raw and are said to have a pleasant taste which imparts freshness to one’s breath.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The lacebark pine

While Dirr and Warren state the lacebark elm is “easy to transplant and propagate,” they report the lacebark pine grows slowly and requires patience. It was first discovered in China in 1831. Often grown on temple and palace grounds, the tree is revered and in Korea the largest trees are considered national monuments. The species may grow for 200-300 years with the oldest trees closer to 900 years of age. Often in their native habitat they reach heights of 80-100 feet.* In North America this conifer is more likely to grow to 40′ to 50′ and have multiple stems.

This three-needle pine also has bark that exfoliates in irregular pieces, giving it the appearance of a mosaic. It may not start this process until it is ten years old. Colors which may appear include green, purple, white, and grey.

Peeling bark on the lacebark pine

Although it has some resistance to diseases which attack pine trees, its wood is brittle and it may suffer damage in storms. The seeds from this plant are edible but no information has been given on how to prepare them. Turpentine extracted from this species may be used in a number of medicinal remedies, but as this tree is not abundant in the states or easy to grow, it should not be used for these purposes.

E2 Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) is located behind the fire station on Bryan Avenue, along the drive to the parking lot for the forestry department, next to the mugo pine.  

To find the lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) E48 head to the parking lot near the ballparks. It is on a peninsula in this parking lot just about halfway between Mountain Ave and Oak Street.

*The Tree Book: Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes and Gardens (Dirr, Michael and Warren, Keith, 2019)

Bristlecone Pine–Cursed Tree or one That Changed History?

They are slow growers and may add as little as one 1/100 an inch of girth in a year

There are two species of bristlecone pine, both native to the southwestern United States. Pinus aristata, known as the Rocky Mountain bristlecone, hickory pine, or Colorado bristlecone, grows in the mountains of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Bristlecone
Bristlecone in City Park

Pinus longaeva, native to Utah, Nevada, and California, is called either Great Basin bristlecone or Intermountain bristlecone. Both species are long-lived, but the Intermountain Bristlecone holds the record as possibly the oldest living specimen on earth. At first glance the name bristlecone seems to be due to the small branches with their short, stiff leaves which cause them to look a bit like bottle brushes. A third moniker for the Colorado Bristlecone is foxtail pine due to branches resembling those of foxes.

Close up of a branch
Small branches looking somewhat like a bottle brush

Originally both species were classified as foxtail pines (Pinus balfouriana) but were reclassified in the 1800s and the two types of bristlecone were further distinguished in the the 1960s. The actual reason longaeva and aristata are called bristlecone pines is due to a bristle on the young cone.

Both species belong to the five-needled or white pine group of Pinus. In Colorado, bristlecones typically grow from an altitude of 8300 to 13000 feet (Ackerfield.**) At higher altitudes they are slow growers. According to one source  they may add as little as 1/100th of girth in a year. Often bristlecones grow with both limber pines and Engelmann spruce and sometimes near treeline with common juniper. Their seeds are tiny. Unlike most other pine species, they are winged. The trees do not produce seeds until they are between ten and forty years old, but may continue to reproduce throughout their extremely long lives. Most references mention these evergreens retain their needles for many years, with one article stating the needles may persist for decades. Often the needles are sprinkled with white resin spots, making the tree look like it has suffered a case of dandruff.

Bristlecone closeup
Close up of a branchlet of a bristlecone pine

When discussing edibility or medicinal use of the bristlecone, sources such as Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies (Kershaw, Linda, 2000) and Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West (Moore, Michael, 2003) tend to lump them in with other five-needled pines. Both sources mention pine needle teas to enjoy or use for coughs and fevers. Both sources warn an excess of the tea may be detrimental, especially to pregnant women. Pines may also provide resin and be used for firewood, although in national parks, all bristlecone pines are protected.

Dirr and Warren* mention the bristlecone for the landscape, especially in dry areas with poor soil. They do need full sun and are usually sold as cultivars. In the yard they may have the look of whimsical holiday trees. At higher altitudes they have the appearance of large pieces of misplaced driftwood.

Although Pinus aristata has evolved numerous survival mechanisms, and the ability to adapt to hardships may be part of the secret to its longevity, climate change may be playing a part in new dangers to these old trees. In the early 2000s, bristlecone pines were documented to have died from mountain pine beetle infestations. White pine blister rust and dwarf mistletoe are also known to endanger these long-lived trees.

A Pinus longaeva specimen known as Prometheus was counted as nearing 4900 years when it was cut down by graduate student Don Currey. There are various stories about how exactly this tree was destroyed with the exact facts in dispute.  A full reckonning of the acrimony and confusion surrounding the Great Basin bristlecone pine designated as WPN-114 has many facets of today’s fights about climate change. To make the death of this tree a greater tragedy, when the pith of the tree was sent to the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research after Don Currey’s death, a more precise dating of the tree was determined. Now some estimate Prometheus may have been 5100 years old. 

In a piece developed for Radiolab, the hosts play a recording of Don Currey telling part of the story of WPN-114’s demise. The piece on Prometheus begins around 15:00 minutes. Although interesting, there appears to be at least one mistake in the update. Prometheus lived in the Snake Mountains in what is now Great Basin National Park, while the White Mountains and the disputed new oldest tree is in California. 

In 2014 the artist Jeff Weiss produced an exhibit, or as he calls it “a thing,” to mark the 50th anniversary of the cutting down of this great tree. (There is a film about this “thing” discussing the history of the tree and the art; the story starts around 9:48. Although the information is overall interesting, there are a lot of extraneous comments.)

Another Pinus longaeva, Methuselah, is a mere fifty years younger and still living. And a third, even older tree is rumored to have been located by the same man (Edmund Shulman) who found Methuselah, but this has not been verified. The tree is said to be living in an undisclosed area of the White Mountains and was 5067 years old in 2019. The oldest Rocky Mountain bristlecone, which is located in Colorado, is a mere 2436 (in 2020) years of age. 

According to the Gymnosperm Database, the largest specimen of Pinus aristata is located in New Mexico. The tree may be of dwarf stature at high elevations but may reach 40′ at lower altitudes. The 2018 champion tree in Colorado was found in the San Isabel forest and reached a height of 59′, about twenty feet higher than the next candidate. Lower altitude trees may not reach the great ages of their counterparts closer to treelike. They may become victims of heart-rot, decreasing their longevity to around 300 years.

Bristlecone bark
Bark of the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine

The Rocky Mountain bristlecone’s relative, the Great Basin bristlecone pine has also played a part in calibrating carbon dating techniques and helped correct the historical record. This was done by overlapping tree ring patterns from living tree core samples and intact patterns of deadwood. This technique has enabled dendrochronologists, archeologists, and historians to examine climatic and other patterns over 10,000 years and has earned the Intermountain bristlecone pine the moniker the Tree that Rewrote History.  Here is a link to a  2009  poetic documentary, The Oldest Tree on Earth: The Curse of the Methuselah Tree. It includes a clip of Don Currey discussing the cutting of Prometheus and information from the person who claims to have found an even older specimen.

The curse of the bristlecones implies those who touch/cut the trees will have brief lives. Edmund Shulman who cored Methuselah in the 1950s died at 49, while a 32-year-old Forest Service employ who helped carry a slab of Prometheus off the mountain suffered  a heart attack on the way down and died. Currey, who one would assume would be the most cursed, died at 70, diminishing the likelihood of a curse in my mind. A highly recommended 2020 New Yorker article by Alex Ross, “The Past and Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees,” discusses the curse, dendrochronology, the controversy over the bristlecone’s possible submission to climate change, and other aspects of this species.

bristlecone against the sky
Colorado Bristlecone pine hiding amongst the spruces.

To find C170 Pinus aristata in City Park, go to the intersection of Mulberry Street and Sheldon Drive. On the northeast corner is a small grove of trees including some spruce and deciduous trees. The shortest of the conifers should be the Colorado Bristlecone pine. Last I  looked, I did not see its tag. This tree was planted in 1978 when it had a diameter of eight inches.

 

 

 

 

*The Tree Book:Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Gardens (Dirr, Michael and Warren, Keith, 2019)

**Flora of Colorado (Ackerfield, Jennifer, 2015)

 

 

By the Beech

An unusual use of the buds in the spring is as a toothpick.

When interviewing Molly T. Roche, Senior Forestry Coordinator for the City of Fort Collins, back in 2018, I suggested we take her photo near one of her favorite trees. She selected the European Beech. We took the photo that summer, but I was hoping to include another when its leaves had turned. A cold spell and snow ensured the leaves on most trees crinkled up and turned brown. I waited through this fall but once again, didn’t get a photo.

Molly by the Beech
Molly by the beech, summer 2018.

Although there is an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) which is native to the East and Utah, the tagged tree in City Park is a European Beech (Fagus sylvatica.) This species has been introduced to North America and similar to the native Fagus, grows in the east and Utah. Beeches belong to the Beech, or Fagaceae family, which includes the oaks, chestnuts, chinquapins, and two other genera that grow mostly in Asia.

The young leaves of the European beech are edible. Some say they haveSunlight through the beech leaves a taste somewhat like sorrel, which if you’ve never eaten it, has a lemony flavor. The leaves can be steeped in gin to create an alcoholic drink or made into a tea. And although this is NOT mentioned often, at least one company in the US makes a syrupBeech syrup from the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) sap. Granted this is not the same type of beech as in the park, but it is still interesting. A study done in Maine has cited a change in Northern forests from maples to beeches due to climate warming. Possibly a switch to Beech syrup can help save some of the current maple sugaring jobs.

Beech seeds, also known as beech nuts, according to most sources are quite tasty, although they may take a bit of work to prepare. Some may roast and grind seeds as a coffee substitute. Although a few seeds may be produced by the time the tree is 10 years old, trees do not fully produce nuts until they are 40 to 80 years old. An unusual use of dried beech buds is as toothpicks in the winter!

According to Monumental Trees, the beech tree trunk with the most girth, over 28′, can be found in Germany as can the tallest (>161 feet). According to the Sibley Guide to Trees (Sibley, 2009), a more usual height for a tree planted in North America is 50-70 feet. The internet site lists the oldest known Fagus sylvatica as a tree in Italy of 520 years. A “tree” planted around 1850 in Massachusetts is listed as the oldest known European beech in the US.

Sources vary on how useful the wood of a beech is for woodworkers. Most mention some furniture making as well as use in parts of instruments such as drums. Beeches in Europe have been used to construct cabins and furniture. Logs are used as firewood. They split easily and burn well. They may also be turned into charcoal or used to manufacture creosote.

The verdict seems to be out on using beech wood or chips for smoking foods. Most lists on the internet leave it off. One says it is long burning but has a strong flavor. Another says it is mild, similar to apple or pecan. This last mentions it is popular in Germany and used to smoke dishes such as Nuremburg bratwurst.

Beech trunk
The gnarly, elephant look of the beech trunk

There is controversy about the medicinal use of the beech, too. Although many sites mention some uses for its oil, leaves, and bark, most warn about toxicity or difficulty in procuring enough seeds or oil to be of much use. Other sources suggest even the bark may be ingested to improve digestion, and decoctions of seeds have been used to improve kidney function. Poultices made of the leaves have been used for headache relief and a tar made from the beech may be considered an antiseptic and has been applied for toothache relief.

A bestseller written in 2015, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate–Discoveries of a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, which has received many good reviews, talks about the life of various trees but features beeches. The book isn’t without controversy, though, as seen in this article from The Guardian. The book almost reads like a novel but is backed up with scientific studies. It will certainly change how you look and think about trees.

To find Fagus sylvatica, go to the section of the park bordered by Oak Street,  Roosevelt and City Park Drive. The tree is somewhat in the center of the corner of Oak and Roosevelt. Currently it also sports a bright green box that might look something like a birdhouse but is actually a trap for some sort of bug. A second tagged beech in the park may be found along the lot line with the golf course.

 

According to The Tree Book ( Dirr and Warren, 2019,) the first cultivar of a European Beech was developed in 1770. Fagus sylvatica, Dawyck Purple is of the fastigate type and according to Dirr and Warren may grow to a height of 40-50′ (p.353.) This specimen has lovely, purplish-red leaves.

The Purple European Beech may be viewed along Jackson Ave, almost across from the intersection of West Olive Street.

 

 

 

 

 

Quirky Quercus and the Leaves of its Genus

Old Ironsides was built out of a species of white oak.

Legislation was passed in November, 2004 proclaiming the oak tree the national tree of the United States. I suspect most of us think of oaks as large trees with majestic canopies and easily distinguishable leaves. Probably we think the leaves look like this:

But the number of trees in the oak genus, all of which are members of the Beech family, are reported to be between 400* and 600 worldwide. Michael A. Dirr and Keith S. Warren in their The Tree Book (2019) list the number as 530, including both deciduous and evergreen species. The outdated The Plant List includes at least 605 species and Tree Names lists 605 plants under Quercus.

There seems to be some question as to the number of oak species in North America, too. Many sources suggest there are about 90 species in the US and Canada (Dirr and Warren) while Sibley includes only 69 native species. There are at least nineteen species of oak in California alone. Many sources list the number of  varieties in the US at about 90, but state there are at least 160 species in Mexico. The USDA map for Quercus shows all states except Idaho and all Canadian providences have native or introduced oaks.

On top of the large number of species, the various species easily hybridize, often making classification difficult. Within the two broad classifications of red oak or white oak, though, the trees do not interbreed. Some recognize an intermediate form of Quercus called golden oak. This subgroup may consist of only five species, although other sources state that there are none in North America.

Both red and white oak trees are used for furniture, flooring, cabinets, veneers and paneling. Historically only three species of white oak have been used in cooperage and for aging whiskies and wines.White oak is more often considered for outdoor uses as it has greater rot resistance. Live oak, a type of white oak, was used to build what is currently the oldest commissioned warship in the world, the U.S.S. Constitution. “Old Ironsides” was launched in 1797! Some of the ways to tell the difference between red and white oak trees, as well as their respective lumber, are discussed here.

Acorns give a clue as to whether a tree belongs to the group of red or white oaks, as well as a way to identify the various species. Acorns are also much more variable than I believed as a kid. Some are hairy, others elongated, a few tiny and some huge.

Red Oak with acorn
Note the large size of the cap of the red oak’s acorn.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of squirrels in our park and it is difficult to come across an intact acorn, but if you have an area with an abundance of acorns, this article discusses the foraging and processing of them for use in recipes such as Acorn Mousse and Acorn shortbread cookies. Guidebooks such as Sibley and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees will usually include a picture or description of the nut to help with identification. While many species forage for acorns, other animals apparently can be poisoned when ingesting acorns, oak leaves, and bark. Acorns contain tannins and may be bitter. This can be remedied by repeated rinsing of the mashed meal.

Another reason acorns may be hard to come by in our park is the trees may not produce until they are twenty years old and the crop might not be considered a full one until the tree reaches fifty. According to this same source and others, the more bitter the acorn, the longer it will store.

An easy way to tell if an oak is a red or a white is by the leaf. White oak leaves generally have rounded lobes while red oaks have pointy tips. In many cases you have to look very closely as the tip is as thin as a hair.

Red oak tips
Leaves from three species of red oak

With the large number of oak species, it might be of little surprise that not all oak leaves look like you might expect. Some do not resemble that typical sketch above in the least. To complicate matters, the same tree may have leaves of distinctly different shapes! (Sibley, P

There are twenty-six tagged oak trees in City Park, although a number of these are hybrids or varietals. For this first post in a series on Quercus, we look at variations in leaf form. I have ignored the leaves of the hybrids.

Burr, others
The Oregon mountain oak has a small leaf while the burr (or bur) oak has larger leaves with many lobes. The typical leaf might have a more indented mid-section.
English Oaks
All English oaks, which are native to England, are white oaks. This can be seen in these three varieties rounded leaf lobes.
Graves and MOngolian
Note the rounded ends of the Mongolian and Chinkapin Oak, indicating they belong to the white oak group.
Red and Swamp
The swamp oak is a white oak although it is difficult to tell its lobes are rounded. The tips of the northern red oak, though, are decidedly pointed!

The photo below shows the Oriental White oak leaves growing on the tree. I would never have picked out either of these two leaves to belong to the oak family!

 

Although I do not have a photograph, as this tree is not on tree tour, there is a species called the Maple-leaf Oak. This endangered tree currently numbers only about 600. According to Sibley this oak is related to the Shumard, although the pictures of the leaves look  more similar to maple leaves than the skinny Shumard leaf pictured below.

Shumard and Gambel
Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii) a red oak on the left with its acorn and a Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) on the right.

*The Sibley Guide to Trees, David Sibley, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catalpa—the Fish Bait Tree

Some consider the long seed pods and large leaves of this tree to be messy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Flower from a Northern Catalpa

The genus Catalpa contains ten or eleven (North American Trees, 5th Edition) different species of trees. The Chinese variety, Catalpa ovata, which is on the City Park tree tour, is a native of China but has been introduced in the eastern part of North America.

Two species are native to this continent, Catalpa Speciosa and the southern version, Catalpa bignonioides Walt. Even though neither of the other species is tagged in the park, I am going to discuss them because catalpas are one of my favorites. The trees look very similar with their large leaves and long bean-like seed pods. Each also has clusters of flowers, with the native trees blooming earlier with larger blossoms than the Chinese variety.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Developing leaf of the catalpa.

The Northern Catalpa (C. speciosa) is native to all but eight western states and Florida and has been introduced into Ontario. The Northern Catalpa is the largest of the three trees, normally growing to 60′. The National Champion tree in Indiana is 78′ and  with a 81′ crown spread. C. bignonioides, the southern catalpa, has a range which overlaps that of the northern. It can be found in most of the states where the larger tree doesn’t grow as well as in North Dakota. Although the Southern catalpa is normally only 30-40′ in height (The Tree Book, Dirr and Warren, 2019) the champion tree listed in 2017 is not much smaller than its northern counterpart (75′ x 82′).

The moniker fish-bait tree technically applies to the southern variety of this tree, but the catalpa doesn’t want for other names. They include the cigar-tree, Catawba, Indian-bean tree, caterpillar tree, and Western Catalpa, with the Northern and Southern species sometimes sharing the same alternate name.

P6180005
The developing leaves of the Chinese Catalpa with a few of the seed pods from last year

The wood of the northern tree has been used as railroad ties, trim carpentry, telephone poles, fences, and furniture. The southern catalpa wood has been used for similar purposes, but its most interesting use is in plantations where it is grown to attract the the catalpa sphinx moth, which is used for fish bait! (The Tree Book, Dirr and Warren, 2019).

Bark from C. Bignonioides has been used to treat malaria. Other parts of the plant have been used for medical reasons, including the roots, although the current writeup from the USDA includes a warning in red that the roots of this plant are poisonous!  Plants for the Future rates only the Chinese Catalpa as having possible edibility. The USDA does warn that the native trees may be invasive and weedy. Many people complain that the seed pods are messy and many don’t like the large leaves. My feeling is that the larger leaves make them easier to pick up! Even the New York Times took up the case of the catalpa with the story of its spread in the 19th century.

P6180004_01
Bark of the Chinese catalpa

The Chinese Catalpa is smaller than the native trees. An  additional use of its wood is in the making of a traditional Chinese instrument, the Qin.

The Chinese catalpa C 175 in the City Park Arboretum is along Sheldon Drive, just south of the Indian Magic Crabapple on the eastern side of the road, catty corner from the latrine on the west side of the road. The catalpa trees in town seem to leaf out and flower late in the season, so much so that if you own one, you start to worry it has died, yet the Chinese catalpa is even later. It looks quite scraggly even this late in June this year.

P6180003
The Chinese catalpa in mid June