Tree ID Ninjas: Huntsville Botanical Garden

How in the heck do you identify a tree in the winter time? If you’re like I am, you base any attempt at tree identification almost entirely on its leaves. That’s all well and good in the spring and summer, but what’s a girl to do in the dead of winter?  Take a class on native tree identification at the Huntsville Botanical Garden, that’s what! Yup, the HBG is offering a six week class which will cover almost 70 species of trees that are commonly found in this area.

As soon as we heard about this class, Chet and I jumped at the chance to sign up for it. Readers of this blog already probably know about our obsession with identifying flowers on our hikes; it’s only natural that we’d want to learn more about all those trees we hike past and under every week.

I arrived at the Botanical Garden having driven straight from a girl’s weekend in Nashville. (No details here – what happens in Nashville, stays in Nashville!) When I left the hotel in the morning, it was actually snowing/sleeting quite a bit, but I figured the first class would mostly be a classroom session so I didn’t worry too much about the weather and drove straight to the Botanical Garden.  Chet ended up behind me on Bob Wallace as I drove up, so we pulled in together. I’d been a little distracted by all the Nashville fun, so I  hadn’t really paid a whole lot of attention to where the class was. This was a mistake. We parked at the visitor’s center and went in to ask where the class was, only to find out it was being held in the Butterfly House, pretty far from where we’d parked. Hmm. It wasn’t snowing anymore, but the wind was pretty DANG cold and we were running late already soooooo back in the car we got for the short drive to a parking spot closer to the classroom. We had to navigate around a bit of construction and (sadly) I’m not familiar enough with the Garden to know any shortcuts, so we missed the first few minutes of the class. Luckily the staff was pretty gracious about it and we soon were signed in and caught up, handouts in front of us and ready to learn.

The teacher is Tracy Cook, the assistant curator at the Garden. She went through a short PowerPoint overview of the kinds of things we’d be learning about and some of the terms we’d be using,  then invited us to come up to a table where she had a display of some good field resources and examples of things she’d talked about in the PowerPoint. After that, we bundled up to go out in the Garden for some actual field observations. Uh oh – I was wrong about it being a classroom only day! I really should have put on my warmer coat – the one sitting in the back seat of my car with nice warm gloves in the pocket and a scarf looped around the neck. Sigh. There was no time to figure out how to get back to the car to get it, so I just suffered through the cold. Next time, I’ll be better prepared.

We all trooped out to the garden to get a close up view of some of the things Tracy had talked about in the classroom. A lot of tree identification can actually be done by the bark, we’d learned. Bark can be smooth – like on a sugar maple or a hazel alder:

Or it can have dark, almost black bark with scales like charcoal briquettes like a persimmon tree:

It can even look sort of like somebody took wine corks and stuck them in the furrows like on a slippery elm:

Slippery elm

We also learned a little bit about leaves because even in the winter, you can look at a tree branch and see where the leaves were (or will be). Up close, you might be able to see a leaf scar, but even from 60 feet below a branch, you can see the little twigs where the leaves will eventually come from. The arrangement of these twigs is either alternating or opposite. The opposite arrangement is less common. In fact, if you see the opposite arrangement on a tree, you can narrow down the type of that tree to  buckeye, maple, ash, or dogwood.  There’s even a handy acronym for that – “B Mad!”

We saw examples of buttressed roots on a red maple, and epicormic sprouts on a boxelder, which has a habit of growing at an angle instead of straight up.


We also talked a lot about the different kinds of fruits trees have. A tree fruit isn’t always something big and edible like an apple or a pear. The fruit of a sweetgum is a spikey ball, while the sugar maple fruit are those  “helicopter seed” or “whirlygig” things I used to love watching twirl through the air as a child.  The fruit of a tulip poplar is a cone-like cluster of papery tissue that looks a bit like a tulip – hence the name of the tree.

We learned about what a  “petiole” is and why it’s notable on a red maple. We learned what it means when a leaf is described as “simple, entire, and cordate.”  We talked about so many other things in this session and there are still five more classes to go! I can’t wait for the next one.

Is this interesting to you? If so, come join the class! It is free for Garden members and only $5 per class for non-members. Handouts are available for those who missed the first class, and while you are encouraged to come to all of them, you can also just drop in on a single class. Be sure to dress warmly. Unless the weather is really horrible,  a good part of each class will involve walking around outside to get up close and personal to the trees we will be learning about.




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