I hate it when I see people take nature for granted. We get so busy with our own to-do lists and goals that we wander through life and don’t even notice half of what goes on around us. Especially if it’s things that are always there, in the background of our lives, like trees. We treat them as if they aren’t important to our well-being, yet they produce the air we breathe.
I didn’t think I was like that, after all, I love nature. I live in the woods. Then last week, when I couldn’t identify the flower that had grown in my yard for almost twenty years, I realized I was just as bad as everyone else. I decided to start getting to know my neighbors – the ones that make my world a more beautiful place. Today, I’m getting to know a tree.
I thought identifying trees using their leaves would make it too easy, so I decided to try and do it with the bark alone. Ha – that was a crazy idea. Even though my field guides include pictures of the bark, they all look very similar.
I started researching and discovered that the bark changes as the tree ages, so depending on how old the tree is the bark may look totally different even though it’s the same type of tree. I found that situation to be true in my front yard. This was much more difficult than I expected. I decided to go talk to the experts. I drove to Brazos Bend State Park and talked to one of the Park Rangers. She said that most people use all the parts of the tree to help confirm its identity, and recommended some good resources.
With her advice in mind, I started my quest again. I picked a tree in my back yard as my starting point, because it had a very distinctive bark. Using all the parts of the tree, I identified it as a Sugar Hackberry or Sugarberry (Celtis laevigate).
The Sugar Hackberry is a native species in Texas. It can grow up to 100 ft. tall, and it makes a good shade tree. It’s one of the most common trees in the eastern third of the state. It does well with clay soils and is often found in stream and river bottoms, but it can grow in almost any location within its range.
It has a pale-yellow wood that is similar to Elm in texture and structure. But the Sugar Hackberry is mostly sapwood, and the wood rots quickly.
“Sugarberry grows fast, gives good shade, is easily transplanted, tolerates a very wide range of soils and climatic conditions, is resistant to city pollution, has a shallow root system that holds the soil, and like other Celtis species is resistant to Texas cotton root rot.” (Leslie, 1999)
They are very tolerant of ignorant land owners as well. I wanted to hang a bird feeder in the tree, but I didn’t want to nail anything to the tree to hold it. (Heaven forbid that I should hurt the tree - no, I'm serious. I love my trees.) Instead, I wrapped a chain around the trunk and over a limb and hung the feeder from that. A knowledgeable tree person would have gone out there and adjusted the chain as the tree grew, but I didn’t even think about it. That tree grew right over the chain and kept right on living. Now there is a bulge in the tree at about shoulder height, and a chain hanging out of the bark. When I realized what I’d done, I wanted to ‘fix’ it, but by that time, it would have hurt the tree more to try to get the chain out, so I left it and learned from the experience.
“Most tree experts consider Celtis in general as undesirable weedy pests because of their ragged appearance, habit of reseeding in abundance, shallow invasive root system, thin, easily-damaged bark, many minor problems that render the foliage of young branches unsightly at times and the quickness of the wood to decay. Nevertheless, they are a good selection to plant in areas where nothing else will grow. The sweet-fleshed fruits are produced in abundance and are a favorite of many species of birds.” (Leslie, 1999)
I can’t imagine why anyone would consider these trees as junk trees. The cardinals love the fruit, and it makes excellent shade when Toby and I get out and play Frisbee on these hot Texas summer days. It drops the temperature at least twenty degrees, and it’s generally quite pleasant under there.
These trees are very common in the Eastern part of Texas, so if you live in that area, you may have one too. Let me show you how to identify them so you can check for yourself.
Since we learned about the Taxonomic Classification system in last week's blog, What's Its Name, I’ll tell you that the Sugarberry tree is part of the Elm family (Ulmaceae).
The tree has a single, straight, tall trunk with slightly drooping lower branches and an open round crown.
It grows to 60-100 ft. tall.
The leaves are simple (only one leaf grows off each stem), lance-shaped, 2-5” long, dark green and smooth on top, paler on the underside, often curved tip, asymmetrical base, alternately attached.
That’s a lot of information. Let me show you what they mean.
The picture above is a closeup of a Sugarberry stem. See how each leaf is on a stem of its own? That’s what they mean by “simple” leaf. Notice how none of the leaf stems come off the main stem at the same place as another leaf stem? That’s what they mean by “alternately attached.”
Did you notice how one side of the leaf at the stem is wider and more heart shaped than the other? This is what they mean when they say, “asymmetrical at the base.”
The bark is light brown, gray, or silver. My tree has all these colors subtlety blended together. When the trees are young, their bark is smooth and thin, but as the tree ages and grows, the bark becomes corkier and it gets warts (check the picture of my tree above to see tree warts).
The flower is a tiny green flower (1/8” wide) that grows at the base of the young leaves in the spring.
The fruit is a green drupe. (A drupe is a fleshy fruit with a thin skin and a central stone containing the seed, like a cherry, a plum, or an olive.) It turns orange red to dark blue at maturity. It’s sweet and edible when ripe. The birds love them. Even humans can eat them. The Indians used to eat them long ago.
The Sugar Hackberry or Sugarberry is a deciduous tree, and its leaves turn yellow in the fall. (Assuming it gets cold enough - around here, sometimes they get tired of waiting for the cold and just fall off.)
It’s a native species of Texas, and it can live up to 100-150 years old.
It likes moist soils like you find in a river valley. It is usually found as part of the under-story of mixed deciduous trees. It likes partial shade to sun.
Its range includes the Eastern half of Texas with the exception of the far south.
So, are you interested in learning more about the trees in your part of the world? While I was at Brazos Bend State Park, I learned about their website where they have most of the species of trees in the park identified (www.BrazosBend.org). I’ve copied their list, and I’m going to try and find an example of each one, as well as identify the trees in my own yard. I think it will be fun.
If you want to keep track of my progress, check out the new Tree Identification Project page on my website. It will include a list of the trees I am currently searching for and my progress in finding them. What about you? What interesting trees do you have in your yard? Leave me a comment and let me know. Now go, get out in nature, and get to know it – make your life a little richer and much more beautiful. Happy hunting.
Leslie, P. C. and Cox, Paul W. (1999). Texas Trees: A Friendly Guide. San Antonio, TX: Corona Publishing Co.
O'Brien, R. (2013). Trees of Southeast Texas: A Guide to Common Native Species. Quick Reference Publishing, Inc.
Sugar Hackberry. (2011, August 12). Retrieved from Brazos Bend State Park: http://www.brazosbend.org/florafauna/trees/sugarhackberry.shtml
Tekiela, S. (2009). Trees of Texas: Field Guide. Cambridge, Minnesota: Adventure Publications