Thursday, December 23, 2010

Walking in the woods this time of year, my friend Bill and I always play a game of tree identification. We don’t even bother with white birches or shagbark hickories. They’re too easy.

I might be able to stump Bill if we happened upon a European birch, another white-barked birch distinguished from our native paper birch by the dark, diamond shaped fissures on its bark. (Of course, we’re unlikely to find that birch in the woods.) I’m often snagged by cherry birch, whose bark isn’t white at all, but whose young bark resembles young cherry bark, then morphs with age into longitudinally elongated plates. The giveaway for cherry birch comes with breaking a small twig and smelling wintergreen.

Trees like red oak, sugar maple, ironwood, juneberry, hop hornbeam, and ash are easy to identify once you know their bark. I’m usually the first to identify hackberry because it’s one of my favorite barks, pure gray and punctuated by corky ridges. On a wintry day when the sun hangs low in the sky, the shadows create a pattern that recalls those crisp, achromatic photographs of lunar landscapes.

If tree bark offers no leads about a tree, a few dead leaves on the ground or clinging to stems often help out. Beech leaves make identification especially easy because beech is among the few trees that clings to almost all its dead leaves all winter. The lower leaves of some oaks also are reluctant to drop.

Bark, leaves, and aroma aren’t the only things that scream out a tree’s name. Everyone knows the distinctive weeping form and light-colored young bark of weeping willows. Less universally known is the very distinctive form of pin oaks: lower limbs sweep downward, mid-height limbs grow out horizontally, and upper limbs point skyward.

On most trees, stems are alternate, that is, they don’t grow directly opposite each other. So if a tree -- one that grows wild in the northeast, at least -- has opposite stems, I can limit the choices to just a few trees: dogwoods, maples, ashes, or catalpa.

This tree game is more than fun; it’s also useful for identifying firewood. A couple of years ago, I bought some firewood that was billed as swamp oak. Swamp oak turned out to be another name for pin oak, which this wood definitely was not. Bill and I looked at the wood and the bark with its distinctive, long, flat-topped ridges again and again, wondering. Finally, about a month ago, Bill pronounced the wood to be American linden (basswood). I think he may be right. It’s not very good for firewood.


One last thing done before the snow flies: The blueberries have been fertilized and mulched. Next year, I’ll again expect bushes to put on a couple of feet of new stem growth and yield another 160 quarts of delicious berries, all from a planting only 25 by 30 feet in size.

Nothing fancy about my fertilizing. I use soybean meal, available from feed stores, because it’s good for plants that need acidic soil (as well as plants that don’t need acidic soil), it only needs to be put down once a year, and it releases its goodness, mostly nitrogen, slowly and in synch with plant growth. I whirled out 12 pounds from my Whirlybird fertilizer spreader for a rate of about a pound and a half per hundred square feet.

Mulching was slower. Two truckloads of wood chips (from the town recycling center), at 45 cubic feet per truckload, laid down a blanket and inch and a half deep under the whole planting. This organic blanket keeps the blueberry planting essentially weed-free and nourishes the soil, then the blueberry bushes, as it decomposes. The plants like the fluffy, spongy ground that has resulted from 25 years of mulching, especially during dry summers like last summer.

The mulch also reduces the number of disease spores on the ground, such as from dropped mummy berry fruits, that would waft back up into the plants to infect them in spring. Insect and diseases have never been problems on my blueberries.


Moving indoors, to the fruits of my labor. Or, rather, the nuts of my labor.

I finally figured out the best way to roast chestnuts, which, as usual, bore abundantly this year. I start out by giving each nut a shallow slit perpendicular to its axis, easily done with a light chop from a heavy, sharp knife. A shallow layer of nuts goes into a covered pan set in a hot oven or on top of the wood stove for 45 minutes, during which time the nuts steam from their own moisture. Then off comes the lid for another 15 minutes of cooking to let the nuts roast and the shells and pellicles (the skin around each nut) turn crisp.

Massaging each nut without breaking up the nutmeat cracks the shell and the pellicle so that both come off easily -- usually. With last summer’s drought, the nuts are small, but they are pretty much insect and rot free. They have the mealy texture of a baked potato and a wonderfully sweet flavor.


  1. Hi, Lee.

    Can you recommend a good down-to-earth book or website for identifying trees?

    Also, I know you like to use soybean meal for fertilizer, but I looked into buying some at my local feedstore, and the price was much higher than I had anticipated. Do you buy in bulk?

    Thanks for your excellent books, newspaper articles, and blog.

  2. What type of chestnuts do you grow, since American chesnuts have been wiped out by blight?

  3. I like "The Sibley Guide to Trees" and the Golden Field Guide"A Guide to Field identification of Trees of North America." For methodically keying out trees, go with William Harlow's "Fruit Key & Twig Guide to Trees and Shrubs."

    I buy soybean mea at the local feed store for about $15 per 50 pounds.

    I grow hybrid chestnuts, seeking out varieties that are blight resistant, large nutted, and taste good. My top recommendations include Peach, Eaton, and Colossal. Colossal does allegedly get some blight but, after 14 years, my tree is still very healthy and bears abundant crops of great-tasting nuts.

  4. Hey Lee,

    I have a spot in my yard (Raleigh, NC) in which I'm entertaining planting berries--blueberries, and raspberries in particular. However, the spot is on the east side of the house and doesn't get full sun for more than 5-6 hours. Assuming I do most of the other essentials correctly, can I look forward to at least moderate production with limited sun exposure?


  5. 5 to 6 hours of sunlight is considered "full sunlight" so any berries should do fine. Don't expect moderate production; you'll get full production!

  6. Thanks for the quick reply. That's excellent news.