Tag Archive: Trees


The freeskool in Ithaca offers some great classes, including one about fingerlakes plant communities offered by Adrian, a wonderful teacher. We had our first walk of the season this past sunday and went to Mullholland Wildflower preserve on Giles street to look at a typical flood plain forest. Note that is is still very early spring here so we learned to identify these trees without leaves!

Here is what I learned. The two main trees that makes up this floodplain community in the fingerlakes are the sycamore and the cottonwood. The Sycamore is a very distinctive tree due to its beautiful, multi colored bark, which once you know it, is unmistakable. But on an older tree you may have look up a bit to see this distinctive bark as often the older bark down below is less distinctive. 

Sycamore Bark

Sycamore Bark

The sycamore tree is an important tree in the ecosystem as they often have large hollows that provide good habitat for animals. We even saw one with a beehive in it where the bees seemed to be just waking up after the winter and buzzing around!

Here are a few other characteristics of the sycamore tree. It’s branching and leaf pattern is alternate rather than opposite or whorled. And it has a large fruit that it drops in early spring, around May and is somewhat spiny. If you are around sycamore trees you will see them everywhere on the ground in late spring. I had always seen these fruits but not known which tree they belonged to. And their leaves are large and broad, somewhat like a maple leaf.

Sycamore leaf and fruit

Sycamore leaf and fruit

Although these trees are often planted in places that are not floodplains and can survive in such conditions if you seem them in a natural habitat this may indicate a wet area or a flood plain. Look for some of the other species I will talk about next if you suspect it is!

The second main tree species in the flood plain community of the fingerlakes is the cottonwood. Cottonwood trees are fast growing trees in the poplar family, which is distinguished by deep, fissured bark, that appear to have almost diamond shaped fissures. The leaf and branch pattern of this tree is also alternate, like the sycamore. The cottonwoods we saw here were different then the ones I was familiar with in the northwest, which tended to be very tall and straight in stature, and often seemed to be planted as a hedgerow tree. These cottonwoods in the northeast were not as straight, although still quite tall.

The cottonwood wood is known to be good for carving and is what we used in Michigan for our timber framing project. It is relatively soft and straight grained.

Cottonwood bark

Cottonwood bark

Its leaves tend to be relatively small and heartshaped, with wavy edges that can be seen in the picture below, and their fruit are small and hang in clusters, and produce a cottony pollen after they ripen in June.

Cottonwood fruit and some leaves

Cottonwood fruit and some leaves. These green pods with burst open soon and let out their billowy pollen. Later in the season towards the fall they tend to turn a bit red-ish in color.

These two species, the cottonwood and the sycamore are the two plants that define this floodplain community. We also learned about a common understory tree in the community, the  box elder, latin name acer negundo. For those of you who are familiar with latin names you will notice that it is in the maple family. I had heard people talk about box elder’s and when we were guessing the identity of the tree I guessed that is was a maple, but I didn’t know that the box elder was a maple! Did you know that there are over 100 species in the maple family?! Well, apparently there are.

I guessed that the box elder was a maple because it had many burls and my woodurner friend had been talking about how maples tend to have large burls, which he likes to work with on the lathe.

In this community the box elder is often an understory tree and grows almost like a weed. Because it is competing for light it tends to be in a somewhat stressed condition, causing to to send out many leafy sprouts in an attempt to have more surface area from which to photosynthesize.

Box elder leaves and seeds

Box elder leaves and seeds

I also came to recognize the black cherry tree on this walk, a tree not necessarily typical of the flood plain community. This tree has wonderful wood for burning or smoking things and also has quite distinctive bark. Someone on our walk described it to me as potato chip bark and I think that will always stick with me. Also, as its name implies the bark is quite dark in color.

Black Cherry bark

Black Cherry bark

The fruit of this tree is also quite yummy and can be used to make jams and pies is what I hear, but the birds often get to them first!

Fruit and Leaves of the Black Cherry Tree

Fruit and Leaves of the Black Cherry Tree

Now you are a little more familiar with one of many flood plain communities! Try seeing if you can find a flood plain community in your area and see how it differs and is similar to this one! If you want to read more about this particular flood plain community a great resource is the online pdf version of the Guide to the Plant Communities of the Central Finger Lakes Region by Charles L. Mohler, Peter L. Marks, and Sana Gadescu which can be found here through cornell’s ecommons.

One last cool thing I learned from a fellow student on the plant walk was a handy acronym by which to remember the trees that have opposite branching patterns: MAD CAP HORSE. Here is how it works

M – maple

A – ash

D – dogwood

CAP – caprifoliaceae family (honeysuckly and vibernum family)

HORSE – horse chestnut

All of these have opposite branching and leafing patterns, while the others tend to have alternate or whorl patterns. Opposite means that they will branch both ways at each point, giving the plant an overall somewhat symmetrical look.

Hope you learned something!

Until next time…

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I recently finished a book called Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan. Reading this book made me think twice about many things, including how much toilet paper I take to wipe my bum after taking a dump.

According to wiki.answers.com, “Twenty nine million, eight hundred thousand trees (29,800,000) are cut down every day in the world.” That is 3720 acres an hour, 62 acres a minute or 1 acre every second! For reference, an American football field is 1.32 acres is size. And these are using the official numbers from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 2005 reports. The numbers have since gone up. Even in 2005 these far under estimated the real numbers which would include illegal logging, muchof which is done within the timber industry itself.

So why am I telling you all these depressing statistics? Well, for me as an aspiring builder, this book has made me think hard about the building industry’s use of wood and it has increased my opinion of the merits of building with earth and other alternative, non energy intensive materials. Yes, wood is a beautiful and practical building material for many of us but do we really need to build McMansions that use clear cedar (cedar with no knots in it, and therefore of higher aesthetic and structural quality) in places where it serves little to no structural purpose and may not even be visible? Do we need to use exotic amazon wood to make furniture that to the untrained eye looks just like a native oak desk?

In terms of my own building practices I am setting an intention right now to only use wood that comes from a local, known source, because as Derrick Jensen says “…in the end, only low-tech forestry operations for local consumption will ever be truly sustainable.” (pg. 130), My preferred wood will actually be wood that has been salvaged from construction sites  or structures being demolished. I also will not build bigger then I need to and I will always weigh the full embodied energy of possible building materials and only use wood where other materials don’t make sense.

But beyond just how I plan to build I also plan to be more aware of my use of other paper products, such as paper and tissue. Its amazing how much of the forests that are cut down end up being pulped and made into these products. According to Derreck Jensen “more than a third of the trees cut are pulped for paper” (pg. 104). Can you imagine huge old growth trees, perhaps even the infamous red woods, being cut and pulped to make measly rolls of toilet paper? There has got to be a better way. And there is. Historically, paper was made from other plant fibers such as flax and cotton (plants that don’t take hundred of years to reach maturity and don’t support some of the most diverse, complex, and precious ecosystems on our planet) and recycled materials like old rags and waste paper. Paper can also been made from agricultural waste products of crops such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, rice, and sugarcane. So there are alternatives, but logging corporations are powerful money making machines with shrewd propaganda tricks that I won’t get into here (read the book if you want to know more)  that seem to have successfully convinced us that we must consume more and more tree products. As a result, America, being the overconsumption capital of the world, “With less than 5 percent of the world’s population… consumes between 25 and 38 percent of the world’s wood and paper products,” (pg. 102).

Yup, thats right. “The average person in America consumes almost 700 pounds of paper per year; the average in Great Britain and Japan is 330 pounds per year; the average in the non industrialized world is 12 pounds per year,” (pg. 122). That means me and you, as individuals can do a LOT to improve. And, that may not even mean lowering your wonderful standard of life. I mean Great Britain is just as modern and industrialized us as by most standards and the average person there consumes less than half of what we consume in paper products! The amount of paper consumed in the U.S. has increased fivefold from 1920 to 1990 (pg. 105). What happened?
So what can you do? A bunch of things. Here are some ideas:
  1. Set your printer to print double sided by default. Or if your printer won’t do that, like mine, go through the 2 minutes extra effort of printing “odd pages only” first (You do this in “paper handling,” which is one of the drop down options before you hit print) and then restack the pages from last to first and print again “even pages only.” So, it took me a few times to figure out how to order the pages to get this right but then I put the steps on a sticky note and put that right on my printer so if I ever forget there it is telling me odd numbers, last to first, face up, even numbers.
  2. Or, are you printing something like a powerpoint or graphs that don’t need to be the size of the full page? Go to layout (another drop down options in the printer window) and put 4 or 6 “slides” per a page! If you want to get advanced you can do this and print double sided and quickly save hundreds of pages.
  3. That stack of one side used paper that you have been saving but not actually using? Start using it! Print on the other side, make note pads with it for shopping lists and household notes, or notebooks to take notes on in class (its fun to read the printed on side when you are bored…. its like having a magazine hidden in your notebook!). If you really get into this and want more one side used paper try asking you local library or office. Many places are either throwing this one side used stuff away or just recycling it, but we should always reuse as much as we can before we recycle. The saying is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and its in that order for a reason.
  4. When you have reduced the amount of paper you use and and reused every single sided sheet so that both sides and every corner are used then…. recycle it! It does make a difference. “In the United States, every 10 percent of recovered waste paper saves a million acres of forest from being cut” (pg. 45). One Million Acres!!
  5. And, when you go to the store to buy paper products look to see if they have recycled goods. If not demand it! I get wanting soft toilet and tissue paper but do you really need baby soft paper towels?
  6. Building a house or doing a home improvement project? Think about the materials you are using and where they are coming from. Demand local, sustainably forested wood when wood must be used. Or even better, find salvaged wood. Places like Restore that do “green demolition” salvage still usable wood, appliances, sinks, etc. from old buildings. These places are becoming more popular. Ithaca has the ReUse center, and I’ve seen other similar things popping up elsewhere. Goodwill, consignment stores, and other second hand stores are great places to find furniture, clothes, and more. These places help reduce  consumption of virgin resources and will help you save money.
There are some places to start. On a larger scale where should our logging industry be headed? Well, Derrick Jensen talks about restoration forestry which helps being forests back to states of biological productivity, biodiversity, ecological stability and resilience. And, unlike the timber industry would like us to believe, this does not mean choosing owls over jobs.
“‘It means that many more people will have to be employed in the woods, not less; using smaller machines and more reliance on draft animals. It means smaller mills… Restoration forestry leads to a steady yield of high value timber. Clear cutting and/or short rotation forestry leads to periodic return of low-quality timber. Restoration forestry makes much better ecological sense and it makes better economic sense.’
           We need to distinguish restoration forestry from restoration ecology. Forestry is for producing a supply of wood. If you are an inteligent forester, you would restore tree stands (such as plantations) to natural, optimal fiber-producing capacity. But you are still a forester, looking for wood fiber, An ecologist would protect or restore fully functioning forest ecosystems, and consider fiber production for human use to be completely subordinate to the full range of natural ecosystem functions…. We must move away from industrial forestry and towards restoration forestry. We must then move away from restoration forestry and towards restoration ecology.” (pg. 131-132)
But getting there will be a long a hard road. The logging industry is full of powerful corporations with lots of money. They know well how to work the revolving door between their corporate world and public office and they have even infiltrated some of the larger environmental groups. But like any change, in the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Note: All quotes with page numbers in this post are taken from Strangely Like War: The global Assault on Forests by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan unless otherwise specified.
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