Trees and Bushes

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Before the leaves pop out take a walk and look for burls.

“A burl is a cool-looking, extraneous growth on a tree. Ugly on the outside, but magnificent on the inside, it can form on any type of tree! A burl usually grows when the tree is undergoing some stress, whether it be an injury, virus, or fungal infection. The tree’s growth hormones are disrupted and, consequently, it produces those colorful-looking lumps and swirls.

Look how gorgeous the interior of the burls is when cut open!


While burls can technically form on any type of tree, certain species are more susceptible to the fungal attacks that produce burl wood. As a result, burls are quite rare. They can’t be produced on command and, hence, are prized for their incomparable beauty.

Interestingly, burls don’t do much harm to trees or shorten their lifespan. In fact, burls, despite their rarity, are a sustainable wood product if harvested with care. They can be harvested without chopping down and killing an entire tree. As burls age, their colors and patterns become even richer. It can take 30-40 years for a burl to reach maturity and its peak in distorted beauty.”

Some trees are gregarious; Beech and Hornbeam get lonely and love to grow near others of their kind. They are said to be allelopathic trees. Allelopathy is the suppression of one plant by another through chemical secretions. There are many plants that are unable to grow under American Beech trees. For this reason, do not use Beech leaf litter in your compost bin. Early settlers gathered beech nuts to extract the oil which is similar to olive oil and was used as both a food and lamp oil. A coffee substitute was also made from dried roasted and ground beech nuts. Beech nuts are eagerly sought by many birds and mammals (including my Lab). These fat-rich nuts are important food for muskrats, squirrels, bears, wood ducks, and wild turkeys. Beechwood has been used for spindles, rungs, handles, containers, flooring, plywood, railroad ties barrels, and casks. Because of its elastic qualities, it was once used to make all-wood clothespins.

Trees can reveal a lot about the woods we walk through. If you find yourself among sycamores you can be fairly sure you have reached a floodplain. American Sycamores need very fertile soils but tolerate wet conditions and so can make river valley floors their own, thriving where water and nutrients get washed together in a rich soup. (Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley). The American Sycamore’s brilliant white branches earned them the nickname “ghost trees”. Native Americans used the trunks to make dugout canoes, some were 65 feet long!

Once the leaves have fallen along the trails, you can easily see the seed pods of the American Bladdernut. It is a native perennial shrub that grows up to 15 ft high. It has an unusually inflated papery seed pod that contains 1 to 4 seeds. It grows in rich woodlands with moist soil, often within floodplains. Seed dispersal occurs when pods fall into flooded rivers. The seed pods float downstream and re-establish.

The Oak

As flake is to blizzard, as
Curve is to sphere, as knot is to net, as
One is to many, as coin is to money, as bird is to flock, as
Rock is to mountain, as drop is to fountain, as
spring is to river, as glint is to glitter, as
Near is to far, as wind is to weather, as
feather is to flight, as light is to star, as
kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.

  — Robert MacFarlane

Many cultivars of wild and domestic crabapples ( Malus) have been developed. Crabapples and their hybrids have become naturalized in our forests. For these reasons identification of species can be difficult. Native people stored crabapples to use through the winter, and then made syrup or cider from leftover apples in the spring. Rich in pectin, they are often mixed with other fruits to improve jelling.

Maclura pomifera, commonly known as the Osage orange, is a small deciduous tree, native to the south-central United States. It typically grows about 30–50 ft tall. The distinctive fruit, a multiple fruit, is roughly spherical, bumpy, 3–6 in in diameter, and turns bright yellow-green in the fall. The fruits secrete a sticky white latex when cut or damaged. Due to its latex secretions and woody pulp, the fruit is typically not eaten by humans and rarely by foraging animals.

Witch Hazel has a perfect name for Halloween. Native to the woodland understory of the eastern United States, the common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) has spice-scented yellow flowers begin blooming in October and November. The common witch hazel is the only Pennsylvania shrub or tree to bloom in late autumn. Native Americans used the plant to fight inflammation and infection. It is still used commercially.

Hollies come in more than 400 different species in PA. It’s a big and diverse family. Some are evergreen and some drop their leaves. All are appreciated by birds that feed on them.