Last fall trees

By Claire Curry | Published Thursday, October 21, 2010

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For the last two months I’ve been going over our common trees. We’ve now covered oaks, hackberry, mesquite, honeylocust, willow, cottonwood and persimmon.

This time we’ll cover a last assortment of common trees: Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), black walnut (Juglans nigra), pecan (Carya illinoinensis), American elm (Ulmus americana), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia), and gum bumelia (Sideroxylon lanuginosum).

Eastern red cedar is a very familiar tree with several surprising aspects to its life. It is native, but often invasive due to fire suppression. The blue “berries” that we often see Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, and Yellow-rumped Warblers eating are actually the female cones. Pollen from the male trees causes a good portion of us to be miserable with allergies every year. In late winter and early spring, you can bump a branch and see the clouds of pollen fly up.

Let’s go nuts now! Black walnut and pecan are both in the walnut family (Juglandaceae). They have similar large compound leaves (many small leaves on a stem). In the spring, both have long shaggy catkins made of the tiny green flowers. This time of year, the pecan has its familiar, long oval nuts, while walnuts have round nuts.

We have several species of elms, both native and introduced. I’m just going to talk about a few of the most common native species. All have oval leaves with a pointed tip and a toothed edge.

American elm can be distinguished by its bark. If you pull off a small piece, you can see a pattern of dark and pale layers. Slippery elm is also known for its bark; it is somewhat slimy inside. You don’t want to go digging into the tree’s inner bark, though, so just note that it lacks American’s outer layers.

Finally, the cedar elm has lots of very small leaves (usually about 1-2 inches long) and flat “wings” on its smaller branches. Some will grow near cedars, giving us the common name.

I’ve saved gum bumelia for last. I’m rather fond of this somewhat obscure tree. It has leaves superficially similar to a live oak’s (round and shiny) but it is deciduous, losing them in the winter. Some years we have a bane of caterpillars eating out the leaves and leaving behind a webby mess.

Other members of this family (Sapotaceae) live in the tropics, and indeed the gum bumelia (or “chittumwood”) is found at its farthest north in Missouri.

As fall continues to bring us cooler weather, the trees will begin to turn colors and lose their leaves. Enjoy the fall colors and admire their stately shapes, intricate branches and varied leaves. Keep your eyes peeled for autumn surprises!

The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be Nov. 3 and Dec. 1. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur.

For more information, contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office, (940) 627-5475.

Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. Contact them at

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