Winter is a great time to take a good look at our trees. With no leaves it’s easy see their “bones” – shapes, structure, bark, seedpods. Here are seven to look for.
When I look out of my library window, I see the gray trunk of this beech, and below, the gnarled roots grasping the ground. To me it looks like the leg of a huge elephant.
Walk around the neighborhood and you’ll see that many of the beeches, especially those that are shaded by larger trees, still have their leaves. The leaves are pale brown now, and were one the last to lose their green. A good example is on Albemarle as you approach the Soapstone Valley trailhead.
The beech is native to the U.S. The one outside my window is 100 years old. Every fall, it produces thousands of beech nuts – a staple of squirrels and other animals.
Similar beech species were prized in Europe for their bark. In medieval times, the bark was often used as a writing material. The Teutonic and Anglo Saxon words for beech morphed into “book.”
River birches are often planted for their ornamental bark, which curls away to reveal pastel colors. Landscapers plant them here because they do better in our warm weather than the paper-bark birches common in northern states.
Birch bark has a high oil content which makes it waterproof. The American Indians used it to construct canoes. Pieces of bark were soaked in water to make them flexible, then tied or pasted over a wooden framework. When the bark dried, cracks were filled with resin or tar. This made a canoe that was not only waterproof – it was very light and easy to carry.
American Indians also used bark for wigwams and containers. When you look at the river birch you can see how easy it would be to peel the bark for these uses.
Four hundred years ago, before the European settlers came, Forest Hills was probably covered by an oak-hickory forest, with white and red oaks the dominant trees. Development has destroyed many of these oaks in our yards, although some new ones have grown up. You can still identify some oaks this time of year by their leaves, which are hanging on and have turned brown.
Oaks like the white oak above are an essential part of our ecology because acorns have a high fat content. A good crop is vital to squirrels, deer, chipmunks, wild turkeys (in Rock Creek Park), and a number of birds. When the oak crop is bad, some of the the animals dependent on it will suffer.
Oaks are also cherished by entomologists, because they host more caterpillars and insect young than any other tree.
This time of year, I often watch a pair of squirrels chasing each other through the oaks in my backyard. Late January or early February is the usual mating time, and if the chase is successful, the female will bear babies in about 44 days.
Redbuds are a native tree, common along the banks of the Potomac. It is a sturdy, short tree with bright magenta flowers covering bare branches in the spring and the added bonus of interesting seedpods in the fall.
George Washington admired this tree, and had a number of wild ones transplanted to the front yard at Mount Vernon. Other plantation owners of the time also used them as an ornamental tree. American Indians roasted the seeds and ate them.
We have many redbuds in our sidewalk treebox areas. The DC government plants them on the side of the street that has wires overhead because they do not grow tall.
The American sycamore likes to grow near water, on the flood plains of rivers and creeks, but it has adapted well to city life. It is planted for its mottled bark, which glows almost white in the sun against the blue sky.
Many front yards in Forest Hills have a crepe myrtle tree, best known for the lilac, rose or white flowers that cover the tree in the summer. Winter is the time to admire its “bony” trunks and its many-colored bark, which varies from tree to tree.
This is not a native tree. It is of Chinese/Korean origin. A French botanist introduced the tree in South Carolina in 1790. It needs warm weather, and it spread widely through the South. Lady Bird Johnson persuaded DC to plant crepe myrtles along major streets downtown in the 1960s as part of her beautification program.
Most of the hollies in our yards are of Asian origin, but the American holly tree is a native of our woods. This is the evergreen holly which decorates homes at Christmas time.
Several weeks ago, I saw a flock of robins descend on a holly tree and strip it of berries, then move on to the tree nearby. Robins do not like seeds. They want fruit, and hollies are a good meal.
This type of holly has male trees and female trees. In spring, the flowers of the male trees produce pollen which fertilizes the flowers of the female trees. Females have the berries. Male trees are sterile. Homeowners often wonder why their holly has no berries – it is a male.
Don’t miss winter’s sights
You can see many other lovely trees and shrubs just by walking around the block. I urge you to put your phones away and look.
Sources for this article include Wikipedia and A Natural History of Trees by Donald Culross Peattie (1948). Photos by Marjorie Rachlin and assistants Aissatou Diallo and Gloria Arista.