8 Trees You’ll Readily Find in Central Ohio (and 1 You Won’t)
I woke up this morning in desperate need of a change of scenery. I love where I live, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes a person just need to take a little trip! Know what I mean? This tree quest was the perfect excuse to flee the city so I grabbed my field guides and a water bottle and headed to Chestnut Ridge Metro Park, located 28 miles south-east of the Columbus in Carroll, Ohio. I would consider Chestnut Ridge to be about as close as Appalachia gets to Columbus. The farm fields gradually start to give way to hills and the hills are covered with…trees!
If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t think about trees nearly as much as you should. Gabriel Popkin wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in 2017 called “Cure Yourself of Tree Blindness” wherein he talked about how we are surrounded by trees constantly but rarely do we take the time to learn anything about them. I can tell you anything you want to know about honeybees or raising monarch caterpillars or blue bird nesting habits, for example, but ask me what species of trees are growing in my own yard and you’ll get a deer-in-headlights look. This is embarrassing and I’m ready to be better.
As a (very) novice botanist, tree identification is a new skill for me. As such, I selected trees that I felt were somewhat easy to identify and are not easily mistaken for others. For each of the trees, I will walk you through how I identified it, provide some background information and then tell you something cool about the tree’s ecology. Let’s dive right in!
Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
Let’s start with an oak. Most people know about oaks because they know oaks produce acorns. Many species of oaks grow here in Ohio, but I came across this beauty at Chestnut Ridge so we’re going learn about the Northern Red Oak specifically.
Northern Red Oaks have an alternate leaf arrangement, meaning that each node (where a leaf or branch comes out of the stem) only has one leaf coming out of it. This is the most common leaf arrangement and is found in the majority of trees. The leaves are simple, meaning that there is only a single leaf (as opposed to multiple leaflets). Northern Red Oak leaves also have what is called a lobed margin, meaning that there are smooth indentations present in the leaves. Our friend William Harlow in “Trees of the East and Central United States and Canada” reports that each Northern Red Oak Leaf should have between seven and eleven lobes and that the lobes should be should be bristle tipped, which essentially means that they are pointy on the ends as opposed to being rounded. Their acorns are about an inch long and have a little flat “cup” on top (which I’ve always thought looked like an adorable little hat). Finally, Mr. Harlow notes that these oaks do best in a moist but well drained soil. This particular tree was found growing in an open area at the base of some large (for the area) hills.
So now that we’ve identified the Northern Red Oak, what’s interesting about it? Well, if you’re an animal or an insect, probably a lot! Oak trees, with the Northern Red being no exception, are great for attracting and supporting wildlife. Many species of mammals (deer, squirrel, chipmunk, etc.) and birds (blue jay, etc.) eat the acorns and several species of lepidopterans (which is to say moths and butterflies) dine on the leaves as caterpillars. Additionally, the large size that some oaks attain make them perfect for cavity nesters (woodpeckers, for example).
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
Our next tree is also probably somewhat familiar. Maple trees are well known for producing the sap used in the production of maple syrup and for their appearance on the Canadian flag. As is true of oaks, several species of maple grow in Ohio, but we will focus on the Sugar Maple.
Sugar maples have a simple leaf just like oaks do, but their leaf arrangement is opposite instead of alternate. This means that two leaves grow from each node instead of just one. Sugar Maple leaves have five lobes, according to “Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada”, as well as five principle veins.For fruit, they produce the familiar “helicopter” seed pods. The Sugar Maple depicted above was found in a forested area at the bottom of a hill and its crown was exceptionally high in the canopy. The branch depicted below was on a young tree growing in the under-story of a maple-dominated patch of forest. Maples are quite shade tolerant, luckily for this little guy.
Since the focus is usually on sap and syrup production where Sugar Maples are involved, I’ll indulge you and offer up a syrup tid-bit from Kids Gardening. Sugar Maples should not be used in syrup production until they are nearly 40 years old. Additionally, 40 gallons of Sugar Maple sap are needed to produce just one gallon of maple syrup. There. Happy? But did you also know that the “helicopters” (seed pods) provide food for a plethora of birds and mammals? It’s true!
Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Now that we’ve checked the “easy” tree boxes, let’s look at some that are a little less well known. The Honey Locust is a common but fascinating tree in no small part because its trunk is usually covered in giant thorns. Have a look!
Those make it fairly easy to identify, but the unique, tiny leaves help as well. Honey Locust leaves have an alternate arrangement, but unlike oaks or maples, their leaves are referred to as compound. So instead of a single simple leaf, each leaf contains many small leaflets. The leaflets of Honey Locusts are small, rounded and smooth and their complexity is called pinnate. This refers to how multiple leaflets sprout out of multiple points along the stem (as opposed to from a single point). Mr. Harlow describes the Honey Locust as a bottom-land tree and this fits with where I located this particular tree, which was right next to a creek. Honey Locust seed pods are those flattened, elongated, leathery-looking brown guys that you have probably seen laying on the ground and wondered what you were looking at.
Interestingly, according to Yale Nature Walk, once those pods fall from the tree, nothing happens to them until some creature comes along and ingests the seeds after opening the pod. Rabbits, foxes and crows are just a few of the animals who ingest the seeds and then…disperse them…but not before the seeds take a quick trip through the digestive systems of these animals!
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
When their trademark nuts are present, Black Walnuts are fairly easy to recognize. Their leaves are pinnately compound as well, although the leaflets are much larger than those of the Honey Locust. Additionally, each Black Walnut leaflet has a pointed tip instead of a rounded one and each leaflet is what is called finely serrate. Serrate just means that the edges of the leaves are jagged or sharp as opposed to smooth. According to “Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada”, there are usually between 15 and 23 leaflets per leaf. Frequently, this number is even because the terminal leaflet (this is just the leaflet that would be at the very end of the leaf) does not develop like it’s supposed to. Black Walnut leaflets are also hairy on the bottom. Something else to note that is made fairly obvious by this picture…when we talk about the leaf arrangement, we are referring to the entire leaf and not the placement of the leaflets. So while some of the leaflets might look like they are opposite other leaflets, do not be fooled! We only care about the arrangement of the leaf as a whole.
The Black Locust, like all the trees I mentioned before it, is of particular importance to wildlife. The nut it produces is initially encased in what almost looks like a small, hard tennis ball. Once you get inside, there is a dark brown or black-ish nut that is a staple in the diets of things like squirrels and turkeys. As Penn State points out on its Black Walnut species page, the dye found inside the husk (which is the green-ish, tennis ball looking portion that encases the nut) is quite powerful and it stains things. Sometimes people use it to stain things intentionally, like traps and clothing. Other times, people who are collecting fallen walnuts to bring to the Ohio Wildlife Center for the baby squirrels accidentally dye their hands brown and they stay brown for at least a week. It’s me. I’m people.
This particular tree was found near a creek, but Black Walnuts are able to survive in more dry/poorer quality soil as well. They just won’t be quite as happy about it.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras has to be one of the coolest trees from my tree quest. The leaves are simple, alternately arranged and have smooth margins. Nothing particularly interesting about that, BUT there are three different shapes of leaf all on the same tree! The first is a basic, un-lobed shape with smooth margins. The second is more of a mitten shape. The last is my favorite and has three lobes. Have a look!
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the fruits produced by Sassafras trees are a favorite food source for many species of birds and mammals (are you noticing a theme, here?). Sassafras can also be used to make a type of beer, according to “Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada”. Sassafras beer is primarily an old-timey southern occurrence and basically, people would boil the young Sassafras shoots, add some molasses, let the concoction ferment and voila! Beer!
This tree was really something to behold. It was found growing at the edge of an open field on a ridge top. “Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada” notes that Sassafras trees enjoy rich, moist soils.
Tulip (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Tulip trees are another favorite of mine in no small part because of the leaf shape. Tulip leaves are simple and alternate and the margins are smooth. They usually have four lobes and are what Mr. Harlow refers to as “broadly notched at the apex” which makes them look almost like little saddles.
Tulip trees have the distinct honor of being the tallest hardwoods in eastern North America, according to “Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada” and they are also described as visually pleasing and symmetrical, which is probably one of the things that makes me like them as much as I do.
Tulip trees are often called Tulip Poplars, which is a bit of a misnomer as they are actually members of the magnolia family and are not poplars at all, according to the University of Kentucky’s Horticulture Department. I desperately wish this tree quest had occurred in the spring so I could show you a picture of the flowers they produce, but alas. That UK Horticulture link does contain a picture of a Tulip tree flower if you’d like to see one. The flowers are very popular with bees and hummingbirds in the spring as they contain quite a lot of nectar. Tulip trees also occasionally produce a small, winged fruit according to Mr. Harlow in “Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada”. The fruit is popular with some very specific birds, including the bobwhite quail.
Tulip trees used to be quite popular with people as well. Indigenous people used the massive trees to make canoes and the long, straight logs made excellent log cabins for the early colonizers of the New World. Just a couple more fun facts from UK Horticulture Department.
Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
If you’ve ever been in the vicinity of a Sweetgum tree, you will surely recognize these little devil balls.
In addition to the terrible, spiky fruits that really, really do hurt when you step on them just like Dr. Klips said, Sweetgum trees also possess some pretty distinctive looking star-shaped leaves. Sweetgum leaves are alternately arranged and simple with little serrations along the margins. They have between five and seven lobes, according to “Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada”. Here is an example.
Sweetgums are a common bottom-land tree according to Mr. Harlow but this one was found growing in an open area at the base of the Chestnut Ridge hills.
Sweetgums are the host plant to many species of Lepidopterans, including Luna moths. Several years ago, I raised a group of Luna moth caterpillars and those fellas could EAT. I spent a lot of time trying to find Sweetgum branches and leaves to feed them and by the end of their caterpillar stage, I’d have to walk all around the neighborhood at night and take branches to feed the VERY hungry caterpillars. The things we do for love! Sweetgums are also important timber trees, according to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. The are very important in the production of furniture,and are also used to make things like barrels and plywood.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Our final “readily found” tree is the ever-popular Pawpaw. These are slightly less easy to find than the other trees I’ve included.Frequently, the people who do know where to find some will guard their locations like they guard their morel mushroom spots. Pawpaws are honored at festivals and are the key ingredients in a not insignificant number of Ohio-brewed beers. If you look closely at the picture below, you can see several of the odd little green fruits. People have always told me that they taste like a cross between a banana and a mango, but I think I was so put off by the texture of the fruit that I failed to taste it. If you’ve ever been on the SENR campus the week that they sell native plant ice cream in the lobby of Kottman Hall, you’ll know that Pawpaw is always one of the first flavors to sell out. People love Pawpaws!
I got so carried away with Pawpaw popular culture that I forgot to tell you how to identify it. Pawpaw leaves are alternate and simple with smooth, entire margins. They are oblong shaped and also BIG.Here’s a Pawpaw leaf next to my foot for comparison. My feet aren’t huge, to be sure, but these are still a respectable sized leaf.
It’s somewhat difficult to pin down the exact growing conditions that Pawpaws prefer. According to the University of Florida’s Extension Office, they like sun but also shade, as well as every single type of soil that exists. These guys were found in the hilly under-story of a maple dominated forest. Pawpaws don’t really grow to be particularly substantial in size, but what they lack in stature, they more than make up for with that infamous fruit.
Chestnut (Castanea dentata)
I would like to end our tree quest with a tree that is very near to my heart, but one that most people will never see. Once a staple of deciduous forests in the eastern United States, you will be hard-pressed to find a true (healthy) American Chestnut tree these days. At the beginning of the 20th century, a fungus was brought over unintentionally from Asia and this fungus, the Chestnut blight, destroyed these magnificent trees within a matter of decades. Now, most of the remaining Chestnuts, if you can find one, are American Chestnut hybridized with Chinese Chestnut as Chinese Chestnut is immune to the blight.Here is the only majority-American Chestnut remaining at Chestnut Ridge Metro Park.
This tree (which does not look particularly tree-like anymore, does it?) was planted in the early 1990s and is the result of some of the earliest attempts to hybridize Chinese Chestnuts with American Chestnuts in an attempt to create a blight-resistant tree. This specimen is likely 15/16ths American Chestnut. The original tree was quickly stricken by blight, specifically because it had so much genetic material from the American Chestnut, but as you can see, it has continued to sprout and now looks like an odd little shrub.
Chestnut leaves are alternate and simple and have very obvious serrations on the margins. They also have a textbook bristle tip which I have conveniently failed to capture in this photo. If you ever see these leaves in nature, tell someone! Ideally someone from the American Chestnut Foundation. The information about the Chestnut Ridge tree was given to me by Mr. Ryan Homsher, a former biology professor of mine and the Secretary of the Ohio Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. The rest of that Chestnut trivia just rattles around in my brain. Told you I liked Chestnuts!
That about does it, folks! I hope you found my tree quest explanations helpful, I hope you learned something and most of all, I hope that you will start working on curing your own tree blindness!