Thursday, February 28, 2013

Naked Tree Walk at Hessel Park a great way to welcome March

Naked Tree Walk at Hessel Park a great way to welcome March

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“You don’t know a tree until you know it naked.” So says Sandy Mason, whose job title, “horticulture educator with U of I 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?

You could pick up a book or two for yourself and learn some naked tree ID that way. Illinois Extension publishes one called Forest Trees of Illinois that can be quite useful for this purpose, and which costs only ten dollars. And there are other resources you can pick up fairly cheaply on the Web, including one from the Missouri Department of Conservation called A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter, which is also applies widely here in the Prairie State and costs only three dollars (plus shipping).

[The unmistakable seed pods of Kentucky coffeetrees hang on through the winter, making identification of females of this species easy, leaves or no leaves. Photo by author.]

But leaves or no leaves, if you’re new to tree identification you’ll progress faster and enjoy it much more if you learn from experts in the company of other people.

So make time tomorrow to attend the Naked Tree Walk, which will be led by Sandy Mason, along with arborist and Master Naturalist Jean Burridge and Craig Kempher of the Champaign Park District.

The walk, which is also free and open to the public, will take place tomorrow afternoon, from 2 – 4:00PM 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 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 are also 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 Jean Burridge.

While I’m on the subject of trees, I’d like to return to a tree story I told on this program.

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 on the UI campus. 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, a tree that looks recently planted. 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’s not a relic of the pre-campus landscape.