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Tree Party Express  

Adding a new dimension to winter recreation

Second of a Three-Part Series


        Diversity and Confusion:

           Shapeshifting Relatives

                   & Oddball Outliers

What holds true for tigers, holds doubly true for trees: you cannot

really understand a species until you have observed it in the wild.





A walk in the woods provides an opportunity to gain insight into how our native forest trees - some familiar, and some less so - change in appearance over the spans of their lives, adapt to varied conditions, and anchor our ecosystems.

All birches exhibit an alternate, zig-zag arrangement of buds along their twigs, and many, such as this river birch, feature prominent terminal buds that will become catkins in the spring. 

INTERMEDIATE DIFFICULTY: Birches, Poplars, and Other Sneaky Characters 



By virtue of the fact that they can be confused for very few other types of trees, birches ought to be easy to identify, but the sheer variety of species that one could potentially encounter in our region and the shades of difference between them can produce confusion until you really know them.


They're kind of like the Neville Brothers: there always seems to be one you're just hearing about, and you can't really put a name to any but the most well-known two or three.  However, you will easily keep them sorted once you can recognize a few indicative traits of each species.   

Gray birch (Betula populifolia) may be the easiest of the group to discern because it tends to be found growing in colonies as a successional species that is rapidly out-competed once climax species such as maple and beech fill in the upper canopy.  The thin-barked, chalky-gray trunk, marked at branch bases with large, dark chevrons resembling moustaches confirms the identification suggested by the species' location and (often) multi-stemmed growth habit.  Contrary to all reasonable expectations, young gray birches are often whiter in color than white birch, which can have a more polychrome appearance due to irregular exfoliation, but unlike white birch rarely exfoliate. 




WhiteBirch2White birch (Betula papyrifera) often occurs as a multi-stemmed tree, but can easily be distinguished from gray and river birches by its exfoliating bark,  shedding in large strips over young and middle aged tissue and marked with long, but subtle horizontal striping that becomes more pronounced with age.  Also known as canoe birch, this species tends to have a multicolored appearance when it is young and actively shedding bark, but matures to a more uniform white or gray hue once exfoliation ceases.  Bark color is most intense in full sun or uncongested forest conditions, with more mottled, grayer bark occurring on trees in full shade.  Single-stemmed specimens can attain great age and girth.

SivlerBirch4SilverBirch1Yellow, or silver birch (Betula alleghaniensis) is generally a tree of dimensions similar to white birch, but can occasionally grow to much greater bulk under favorable conditions.  It features shiny bark that ranges in color from yellowish to silver-gray, exfoliating in small curls, and is a frequent companion to eastern hemlock.  In its silver-gray form that takes hold in shade, its bark loses some luster, but still can be distinguished from the similar river birch by the relative smoothness of its bark, as well as an appearance that is neater overall compared river birch's "fuzziness".

RiverBirchMature RiverBirch1Among the birches, river birch (Betula nigra) exhibits perhaps the greatest transformation in the appearance of its bark, which varies in color from reddish-brown to light gray when young, exfoliates messily in middle-age, and forms thick, nearly black plates when mature.  It is a common denizen of uplands and lowlands alike, occurring in greatest number along and near river banks and other places with ample soil hydrology.  The largest of the native birches, river birch is primarily a southern species whose northern limit of distribution is in our region.   


Black, or sweet birch (Betula lenta) is the only species we encounter that has bark that is both shiny and dark in color, usually brown to black.  Young bark is smooth in texture, but not papery, and very rarely exfoliating.  Sweet birch is usually marked at an early age with large lenticels, a trait that usually only manifests in other birch species later in life.  Stranger yet, these markings fracture as the tree grows, and the bark matures into scaly plates at a far earlier stage of growth than river birch, which is by comparison a massive tree.  In nearly all stages of development, the bark of sweet birch is much more akin to that of black cherry (hence the alternate appellation cherry birch), and is thus easily overlooked wherever cherries are prevalent.


blackbirch2However, unlike black cherry, the mature bark of sweet birch retains some subtle horizontal markings that can be seen upon close inspection; and, while even the slender, hairless, reddish-brown twigs are similar in appearance to cherry, they do reveal the ultimate truth when crushed, releasing a potent blast of wintergreen.  Though unremarkable in appearance, sweet birch was an historically important species since it was the source of oil-of-wintergreen, which is now produced through a more efficient industrial process that no longer involves the birch.   Like sugar maple, sweet birch can be tapped in early spring and its sap fermented to produce birch beer. 

 HortQuestion: Single vs. Multi-stemmed? 


Some types of trees, including birches, are available in trade as single or multi-stemmed specimens.  Before deciding which is appropriate for the home landscape, it behooves the savvy consumer know the ramifications of each option.


If one wishes to plant a legacy tree, a specimen that, with proper siting and care, should survive one's grandchildren's grandchildren, single-stem specimens are the way to go.  By their very nature, they require less maintenance than multi-stemmed trees, which tend to demand more frequent pruning to maintain health, vigor, and beauty.  A multi-stemmed habit also makes inevitable interventions such as cabling, which counteracts the relentless force of gravity against which multi-stemmed trunks - which almost never grow in a truly vertical fashion - struggle to remain erect.


And, whereas small, naturally multi-stemmed tree species (e.g., dogwood, fringetree, et al.) often branch out from a stout, single trunk, most larger multi-stemmed tree species  produce - whether by nature or by culture - a number of trunks from a central underground crown.  The union of these trunks tends to be an Achilles' heel that can create advantageous conditions for a variety of diseases, setting in motion a chain of circumstance that will inevitably cause decline and death.


However, a multi-stemmed specimen is a wiser selection if the ultimate size of the tree is an issue.  En masse, a group of multi-stemmed trees can also produce a stunning visual statement, particularly when employed as the primary element in a design.  This is as true of a formal treatment, such as an allee, as it is of less formal, more impressionistic deployments such as Fletcher Steele's birch walk at Naumkeag.


Only oneself can decide what is best for one's own landscape, but as with any other investment, an educated consumer will always make a wiser choice.  Caveat emptor! 

Bigtooth aspen, or yellow poplar (left); and balsam poplar (right, as well as in background). 

Poplars: Cottonwoods, Aspens, & Their Kin 


While individual, particularly young specimens of the genus Populus - the poplars - can sometimes resist easy identification to species, one can easily distinguish this group from the crowd by their odd combination of characteristics, for the difference between young and mature bark is distinct and unique among native trees.  Oldest bark is typically furrowed, gray, but sometimes brown, with narrow, almost reticulated ridges typical of the willow family; young bark is remarkably smooth and yellowish green to whitish in color.  If one holds a hand up to block out a mature poplar's midsection, it would appear as though two entirely unrelated trees had been grafted together.  However diametric as the contrast between mature and juvenile tissues may appear, when examined as an integral entity, a poplar perhaps best illustrates the transformational process of development from young to old in a way that illuminates the logic of it in all species.  Focusing on the middle of the trunk, one can see that the marked horizontal patterning typical of the younger, upper part of the tree seems to break up into patchy, rough areas that elongate and crack into coarse, scaly furrows on the lower trunk.  Populus species are obligate hosts to a broad diversity of lepidopteran (butterfly and moth) species.



CottonwoodcloseupEastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) can attain immense proportions in rich, silty bottomlands, where it often dominates riverbanks, while in upland environments, it tends to exist as a minor player limited to streambanks.  Cottonwoods bear young bark that is variably yellowish-green, quickly changing to a deeply furrowed , coarse texture that becomes blocky on the fattest trunks.


This species is an important pioneer species in floodplains, stabilizing bars and banks through rapid colonization and growth; seedlings may grow over ten feet in their first year.  Cottonwood, sometimes called "necklace poplar", produces a prodigious number of small, beadlike fruits, which split to release an even greater number of cottony seeds, creating virtual snow squalls in summer, and sometimes requiring as much clean-up.     

BigToothAspenBigtooth Aspen

 On drier sites, one more often encounters bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), also called yellow poplar.  This species readily colonizes disturbed areas such as forest edges (e.g., roadways), occurring as clonal colonies in some soils, but is never dominant in a mature mesic forest community.  Whereas even young-mature bark is gray, rough and deeply furrowed in cottonwood, only the oldest bark of bigtooth aspen is similarly dark brown, furrowed and scaly.  On a sunny day, bigtooth aspen projects a golden glow, with color intensified on the face of the trunk that receives the greatest exposure to light.  Bark appears more taupe than yellow on cloudy days, but still is quite unique in color, and simultaneously strange and beautiful.
Quaking Aspen

The birch-like quality of poplar is most striking in quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides).  Perhaps the species most often wrongly identified as a birch, quaking aspen has very light colored, dull-gray to chalky-white bark, marked with subtle horizontal patterning and occasional prominent dark patches.  It rarely attains sufficient age to produce the furrowed bark typical of poplars beyond the very base of its trunk.  However, unlike most birches except gray birch, quaking aspen almost always exists as clonal colonies on disturbed sites and woodland edges, and in fact the two are often found together in abandoned farm fields, where they can be readily distinguished by color alone.

Balsam poplar: the original ugly stick


Balsam Poplar

 Another related species that occurs only in the far north or in pockets of boreal forest, balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) is distinct from the other poplars in having young bark that is smooth and blotchy, in various shades of charcoal gray, forming large, nearly black patches before maturing to a more uniformly black surface that is furrowed with deep grooves.  Of all the species in our forest, I have to admit that I might find this to be the ugliest (and I'm a charitable sort), as its bark evokes the same "dirty" quality that I really only possesses me when I see an over-mature gray birch or an over-full ashtray; in a weird, synaesthetic way, they evoke a filthy pile of ploughed snow on the most bitterly bleak, uniformly-gray December day.  Appearances, though, mean little, and this tree and its bred scion, the balm-of-Gilead, were highly valued for their medicinal properties; if you see a tree that looks like balsam poplar, but is growing well out of that species' range - particularly if it is associated with an old property - it is most likely a balm-of-Gilead.


Unlike their poplar cousins, the willows can be a terrible pain to key to species, even after one thinks one knows them well.  This is due is no small part to the great diversity of native species and the propensity for hybridization possessed by those species; add to that mix several introduced European species, and you have a recipe for confusion.  The vast majority of this cast of characters is composed of large shrubs and small trees, with the only great trees among them being the native black willow (Salix nigra) and the introduced white willow (S. alba), of which the modern weeping willow is a cultivar ('Tristis').  Large willows found in relatively undisturbed environments are usually black willows, and those individuals that have obviously been planted (and exhibit weeping characteristics) are nearly always white willow.


SnigraHowever, the genus Salix is easy to distinguish from all others by the combination of two visually arresting traits: all have deeply fissured, reticulated bark and finely-textured, bright-colored twigs in shades ranging from yellow to tan.  Some, such as the rare and strikingly beautiful balsam willow (Salix pyrifolia), even bear red twigs that seem to mock the quietude of winter.  


While willows are not always long-lived, they are nonetheless die-hard.  In swamps and marshes, it is common to find fallen trees that continue to grow, sending up new vertical trunks from the recumbent bole.  Willow has a long history of use as a medicinal plant in a wide variety of pharmacopiae, an application no doubt  intuited by observing the irrepressible life-force of this plant; traditional gardeners know that water in which willow whips have steeped can be used as a rooting compound for cuttings.   Black willow is an important and versatile commercial species, but as one of the trees earliest to flower in spring, it is also an important honey-plant.


"Diamond" patterning on white ash.

Ash trees - white, green, and black - can be hard to differentiate in winter, a trait that they share with those other bedeviling members of the walnut family (Juglandaceae) which we have previously discussed: walnuts, butternuts, and the hickories.  All of these species have compound foliage, and can thus be recognized in winter partly by their coarse texture, as most bear rather fat twigs, large terminal buds, and generally have fewer twigs and branches overall than other trees of comparable dimensions.


White ash (Fraxinus americana), with its thick, dark gray bark broken in to a diamond pattern by deep furrows and forked ridges, is by far the most widespread in our area, and also the most distinct in appearance.  Very mature trees often shed the ridges, leaving a flatter surface, but still retaining the distinct diamond pattern.

Two  other species of ash are indigenous to our area, but they are so undistinguished in appearance, both as saplings and as adult specimens, that one could trip over one and still not be left with any lasting impression beyond a bruise or a scrape.

Young green ash.


Mature green ash.


Mature black ash.


Young black ash.


Green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) is somewhat limited by habitat, occurring more locally in alluvial soils, where it is frequently encountered along the Housatonic River, and similarly, black ash (Fraxinus nigra) is most often encountered in swamps and very wet forests.  The mature bark of green ash is gray and furrowed into scaly ridges that are coarser than those of white ash, and lack the telltale patterning of that species.  Black ash is the oddball of the group, bearing dark gray, corky bark that is fissured into scaly plates, and is sometimes has a very warty surface.  While hardly uncommon, it is easily overlooked in a diverse woodland setting where its appearance is remarkably unremarkable, and could easily be mistaken for a gnarly little maple.  


Downy Serviceberry 


Downy serviceberry, or shadblow (Amelanchier arborea), is unmistakable in when its full crown of white flowers explodes into bloom in April, right around the time that its namesake anadromous fish, Atlantic shad, make their run upriver to spawn.  When not in flower, serviceberry can be simply hard to see, as its subtlety often conceals it in plain sight. 


A lanky tree rarely more than a foot in diameter, serviceberry has a sensuous, sinuous form that seems to corkscrew upwards at any angle except true vertical.  That serpentine quality is echoed in the patterning of the smooth, gray trunk, which is striped in ever more pronounced contrast with age, becoming ridged and grooved over the lower portion of the bole.


                            Tamarack (Hackmatack) 


Another species that can be easy to overlook - particularly in the winter, when one might dismiss it as a slightly odd, dead pine - is tamarack, or eastern larch (Larix laricina), which is unique among our native trees in being both a conifer and deciduous.  Bark is reddish brown, scaly and thin, perhaps the scaliest and thinnest of all trees in the pine family (Pinaceae), but the most recognizable trait of a tamarack in winter is its twig morphology, arrayed as they are in numerous short spurs all along the branches, lending this possum-playing conifer a somewhat frazzled, witchy quality.  Due to its unique traits of its wood - among which is an easily-removed pith -  tamarack had many applications in previous centuries, including use as water conduits.


Multiple Maples 


It's a fair bet that most New Englanders envision a maple when asked what comes to mind when they hear the word "tree", but in fact these most familiar of trees are neither easily identified nor differentiated in a forest setting.  This is due in no small measure to the prejudice of a skewed frame-of-reference, since most people's mental image of a maple is a tree that is an open-grown, often centuries-old specimen, rather than one among millions competing for light and life in a forest.  To complicate matters further, there are as many species of maple indigenous to our forests as there are species of birch.

However, location can help limit the possibilities a bit.  While mountain maple (Acer spicatum) and moosewood (A. pensylvanicum), are most common in upland environments, silver maple, box-elder and the uncommon black maple (A. nigrum) are almost exclusively floodplain species.  The most common, red and sugar maple, are also the most widely distributed and the most easily confused when young.  Unfortunately, in some locations in the central valley, the dominant maple, and in often cases, predominant species is the invasive Norway maple (A. platanoides), whose rough, dark, narrow-ridged bark is distinctly different from any of the native maples.


Black maple.


Mountain maple.


Invasive Norway maple.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) tends to grow on drier, richer soils than red maple (Acer rubrum), which is also called swamp maple.  However, they often grow side by side in mixed woodlands.  While very similar in some respects - both have smooth, thin bark when young and similar habits as forest trees - red maple stays smoother longer, and its gray bark is clearer, almost bluish in hue compared to sugar maple, which has a somewhat hepatic tone.  

A 1-foot diameter red maple may just be beginning to form fissures, with scaly ridges only at the base of the bole, while a sugar maple of similar girth will already be displaying its telltale deeply furrowed, scaly bark.


When in doubt, take a quick glance at the twigs of tree in question.  Red maple bears prominent, tightly-clustered, rounded, garnet-colored buds on stout gray twigs, whereas sugar maple buds are slender, pointed, and borne sparsely on long, smooth, tan-gray twigs.


Ancient red maples are uncommon in our relatively recently-reforested landscape, but are occasionally encountered in old -growth forests and sugarbush plantings where one or two may have been preserved by accident, having been mistaken for  a sugar maple when young.   


Sugar maple


Red maple 

Long before the snows have melted and the first shoot of asparagus emerges, the agricultural season in western New England is well underway.  Late in February, when the days blaze with sunshine but nights still freeze, maples awaken, filling with running, rising sap.  Although many kinds of maples can be tapped for sap, with as many ethnobotanical traditions associated with them, none surpasses the sugar maple in terms of yield, sweetness, and flavor - not to mention the economic and cultural value of maple sugar production in New England and eastern Canada.  And of all regional varieties, the syrup in western New England is thought to be the very best.

Support unique, local, sustainable agriculture by supporting Massachusetts maple producers.  Follow the link below to find locations and contact information for Massachusetts sugarhouses:

Massachusetts Maple Producers Association 

Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), also called goosefoot maple or moosewood, is one of our most unusual looking trees, and unlike most other native trees is most easy to identify when
young, as its smooth, bright green twigs and bark make it easily recognizable.  Young bark ranges from bright green to serpentine-black in hue, and quickly develops the white stripes that earned the tree the sobriquet "snakebark".  While moosewood is generally only a small understory tree, in certain upland locations, particularly on the Berkshire Plateau, it can grow to somewhat larger proportions, in which cases it is often casually misidentified as a young red maple - but long pale vertical lines cast across its mature reddish-brown bark bear the evidence of its true identity.

Box elder, or ashleaf maple (Acer negundo) is a common hedgerow species with weedy tendencies that rarely exceeds thirty feet in height as an opportunist, but can grow to enormous size in its small native niche along the Housatonic River.  The primary range of this species is essentially defined by the watersheds of the greater Mississippi system, inclusive of the Ohio and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries. 


Box elder is a bit of a shape-shifter, both in form and habit.  Young trees are often shrubby in disposition, with bright green, striped bark that can be distinguished from moosewood both by habitat and by the presence of regularly-spaced, ridged rings around both twigs and trunks that are formed by leaf scars meeting at raised points.  Like Norway maple, older specimens of box elder produce thoroughly fissured, ridged bark, but have a much coarser overall appearance due to a quirk in evolution.  Unlike all other native maples, box elder bears compound leaves (hence the reference to elder and ash in its common names), and thus has a coarser texture (i.e., fewer fine twigs) than other maples.  Even in leaf, many people have been fooled into thinking that seedlings of this trifoliate maple are poison ivy plants; you can keep them sorted if you remember that box elder, like all maples, has alternate leaves, while those of poison ivy are alternately arranged along its stems. 

silvermapleAnother somewhat roguish species native to the floodplain, silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is most easily recognized by its form, which in its drama almost suggests an elm, but ultimately lacks the counterpoint of stoic grace that made the elms so entrancing to our forebears.  Of all the large native maples, it has the stoutest trunk, out of which springs a spreading crown of long, curving branches.  While its young bark is unremarkable and gray, its mature bark is unique among the maples in being both gray and shaggy, exfoliating from long, scaly ridges.  Like red maple, its buds become quite large in late winter, but can be disambiguated from that species by its smoother, larger, drooping twigs.

You would not find me living in the shadow of a silver maple, which thanks to its inherent faults - brittle wood and an unstable branching habit - is almost by its very nature a hazard tree.

In our next issue:


Part III: 

Quirky Quercus, Woodland Surprises,

and Why It All Matters. 

While you are thinking of trees...

Why not show your own  trees  some love?  With the severity of this passing winter (which won't be over soon enough for most people), there has been significant and widespread damage to woody plants.  Now is the ideal time to prune deciduous trees, including shade trees, fruit trees and ornamentals.   However, the love needn't stop there.  Stay ahead of the game by setting up a Plant Health Care program for your landscape today!      



catch Webster Ingersoll's


Director of Horticulture

Terrence Trapp


"Re-casting Shade" 


March 12 at 10:00 a.m. at Ward's Spring Garden Show.



Ward's Nursery & Garden Center 

Garden Show Program 

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 Webster-Ingersoll, Inc. is a Landscape Contracting company based in the Southern Berkshires of  Western Massachusetts.  We serve the Berkshires as well as Litchfield County, CT and Columbia County, NY.   We are a team of dedicated professionals who bring creativity, ingenuity and quality to our projects.  Our vision is to honor our community by using environmentally conscious and sustainable practices.  

Our web newsletters are written by Director of Horticulture, Terrence Trapp,

with production assistance from Julie Webster.


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