Arbor Day (April 29) is only 10 days away! Now that it’s nice out, why don’t you take the kids on an educational outing through your local nature trail to celebrate? You might not be aware of this simple fact, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different tree species thriving throughout the United States. Each have their own individual average lifespan, some grow flowers, and others produce spindles and cones instead of leaves and flowers. If you’re looking for a brief glimpse into the wide variety of topiaries thriving all over America, here is a handful of trees you might be most familiar with:
Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
Description: Medium- to large-sized (50-100 feet) deciduous tree. Alternate, glossy leaves (2-5 inches long), generally elliptical in shape, turn bright scarlet in autumn. Male and female flowers are small and greenish white. Abundant fruits resemble dark, elongated blueberries (to 1/2 inch long), with rigid and bitter flesh.
Habitat: Uplands, well-drained valleys and woodlands, though the variety known as swamp tupelo thrives in soggy bottomlands.
Distribution: Southwestern Maine west to Michigan and south to Florida and east Texas
Points of Interest: The nondescript flowers of this otherwise highly attractive tree are an excellent nectar source for bees, producing a very popular type of honey. Black tupelo is also commonly known as blackgum or sweetgum.
Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
Description: Medium-sized (60-80 feet) broadleaf everygreen with a pyramidal crown. Glossy, elliptical leaves are large (5-8 inches long and 2-3 inches wide), as are cup-shaped, fragrant flowers (6-8 inches across), comprising six or more creamy white petals. In autumn, conelike pods break open to release red seeds.
Habitat: Bottomlands, low uplands, and coastal plains in moist, temperate regions
Distribution: Eastern North Carolina south to central Florida and west to east Texas
Points of Interest: The state tree of Mississippi, the magnolia is named for Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), a French botanist who influnced the work of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the father of the modern system of botanical nomenclature. Linnaeus honored Magnol by naming this genus after him.
Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa)
Description: Medium-sized (60-80 feet) evergreen, often with an asymmetrical or flat-topped crown. Bright green, scalelike foliage has blunt tips. Rounded cones (about 1 – 1 1/2 inches long) have a short barb on each scale. Grayish bark becomes furrowed with age.
Habitat: Rocky, exposed coastal headlands
Distribution: Only two native, unmixed groves still exist (both in Monterey County, California), but the widely planted tree has naturalized in other parts of coastal California
Points of Interest: accustomed to the Pacific’s unrelenting winds and salty spray, the Monterey cypress is now a popular windscreen, ornamental, bonsai specimen, and–in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa–source of timber. Naturalists estimate that it can live to 200 or 300 years.
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Description: Medium- to large-sized (50-100 feet) deciduous tree with glossy, elliptical leaves (206 inches long). Tiny, white flowers, arranged in 6-inch-long cylindrical racemes, appear in late spring. Edible cherries (about 3/8 inch in diameter) turn almost black when ripe.
Habitat: Woodlands, fields, roadsides, and bottomlands
Distribution: Nova Scotia west to southern Ontario and south to central Florida and Texas
Points of Interest: As a premium-grade hardwood, black cherry is second only to black walnut in value. The fruit, once used to make pemmican, is now commonly found in pies, jams, and liqueurs. The bark and leaves contain a form of cyanide, which can poison livestock. Wild cherry syrup, made from the bark, acts as a sedative and cough suppressant.
American Holly (Ilex opaca)
Description: Small- to medium-sized (usually under 30 feet) broadleaf evergreen with a dense crown, often broadly conical or pyramidal in shape. Leathery, elliptical leaves with spiny teeth stay on the tree until the spring of their third years. Berrylike fruit turns bright red when mature; each “berry” contains about four small nutlets.
Habitat: Humid areas, including bottomlands, understory of mixed hardwood forests, and coastal dunes
Distribution: Southeastern United States, as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as Texas
Points of Interest: Settlers quickly endowed this New World species with all the Christmas symbolism associated with English holly. The state tree of Delaware, American Holly has the distinction of being the world’s hardiest broadleaf evergreen tree.
American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
Description: Small, shrubby tree (up to 35 feet), often with a twisted or multiple trunk. Toothed, ovate leaves and unisexual flowers are similar to those of birch trees, but fruit is quite distinctive, consisting of paired nutlets, nestled in leaflike bracts, hanging in clusters 2-4 inches long.
Habitat: Bottomlands and the understory of hardwood forests
Distribution: Southeastern Ontario, southwestern Quebec, most of the eastern United States, and south to Mexico
Points of Interest: American hornbeam has extremely tough, heavy, close-grained wood, but its small size makes commercial harvesting impractical. In fact, this species is often eradicated as a weed in forests managed for timber production–despite its role as an important food source for beavers, squirrels, deer, and birds.
Sugar Maple (Acer saccahrum)
Description: Large deciduous tree with a dense, rounded crown, growing up to 100 feet. Palmately lobed leaves (about 5 inches long and slightly more across) turn brilliant shades of red, orange, or yellow in autumn.
Habitat: Cool, moist uplands and forests
Distribution: Southeast Manitoba east to Nova Scotia and south to eastern Kansas and North Carolina
Points of Interest: The state tree of New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, sugar maple is one of the most commercially important hardwoods of North America. Its durable and often strikingly grained wood is harvested for use in flooring, furniture, and other items: and its sap, which has twice the sugar content than that of other maple species, is harvest for maple syrup production.
Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
Description: Largest tree on earth (in terms of mass), sometimes exceeding 250 feet in height and 20 feet in trunk diameter. Evergreen scalelike foliage has sharp tips. Fibrous, reddish brown bark may be 2 feet thick at the trunk base. Egg-shaped cones are 2-3 inches long.
Habitat: Mixed coniferous forests, generally from 4,500-7,500 feet
Distribution: Western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada
Points of Interest: Giant sequoias’ longevity is as impressive as their bulk; many are believed to be over 3,000 years old. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, these mammoth, ancient trees were logged extensively, prompting John Muir to opine, “As well sell the rain-clouds, and the snow, and the rivers, to be cut up and carried away if that were possible.” Today, the sequoias outside national parks (about 50 percent of the population) remain unprotected.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Description: Small (usually under 40 feet), attractive tree with a broadly spreading crown. Deciduous, ovate or elliptical leaves turn red in autumn, as do berrylike fruit (poisonous to humans). Flowers comprise clusters of tiny, yellow-green petals, each cluster bordered by four large, white (or pinkish) bracts.
Habitat: Understory of mixed hardwood forests
Distribution: Southern Ontario east to southwestern Maine and south to east Texas and northern Florida
Points of Interest: While humans admire its ornamental qualities–over twenty cultivars of this lovely tree are now sold commercially–wildlife appreciate this native species for its high-fat, calcium-rich foliage and fruit. Flowering dogwood is the state tree of Missouri and Virginia.
Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)
Description: Broadleaf evergreen of only medium height (to 50 feet) but with a massive trunk (diameter of 4 feet or more) and widespread crown (150 feet or more). Dark green, elliptical or obovate leaves appear leathery with a glossy sheen. Acorns with deep, rounded, scaly cups reach maturity the first year.
Habitat: Coastal plains, barrier islands, sandy areas (including dunes), and marsh borders in temperate regions
Distribution: Southeastern coastal states, from central Texas east to Florida and north to Virginia
Points of Interest: Characteristically drapes in Spanish moss, live oak is the state tree of Georgia and a majestic emblem of the Deep South. Its revered status may explain why its strong timber is no longer used for shipbuilding or other purposes.
Can you tell these trees apart? Quiz your friends, or impress your coworkers with your new knowledge of trees, the next time you take a stroll along wooded walkways with them.
Descriptions come from the Sierra Club’s Knowledge Cards, printed by Pomegranate Communications, Inc. Photos from Yosemite Online, North Carolina Forest Service, and Drawing from Line to Life. Featured image via Southern Pride Tree Farm, Inc.
Simultaneously published on KING’s official blog.