Last month I went over some of our common trees, mostly oaks and the hackberry. I’m going to cover a few more this month. We have a few prickly ones (honeylocust and mesquite), a few that like wet areas (willow and cottonwood) and a fruit tree (persimmon).
I’ll start with the prickly ones, just for fun. Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), or just plain ol’ mesquite as we usually call it, is a member of the legume family (Fabaceae). Essentially, it’s a bean. The family likeness is evident in the compound leaves and its long seed pod. It’s usually a small tree or even a shrub, but a few can get quite large, with several broad trunks. It can be invasive because cattle enjoy eating the sugary seed pods and because there were formerly more fires that burned down the smaller trees.
Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is another legume tree, but its thorns are huge. I once stepped on a fallen honeylocust branch and its thorn went straight through the bottom of my tennis shoe into my foot. Ouch. Some thorns also have smaller thorns branching off of them. The compound leaves are a darker green than those of the pale mesquite and the seed pods are dark brown and flat. Clusters of this tree makes great cover for wildlife, but you don’t want to have to walk through there.
Compared to the thorny mesquite and Honeylocust, willows and cottonwoods are pretty benign. They are closely related to the aspens of the northern United States. The Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) has somewhat triangular or tear-drop shaped leaves. The bark on mature trees is deeply furrowed. In late spring and early summer, the trees release fluff that carries the tiny seeds. There can be so much fluff it looks like it’s snowing sometimes. They prefer riparian zones (areas along rivers) and moist habitats, and require disturbance (such as caused by floods) to allow the seeds to get a good start.
Black willows (Salix nigra) also grow in wet areas, but are shrub-like and not usually nearly so tall or stately as cottonwoods. Willows have long, narrow leaves with fine “teeth” along the edges. Willow, along with cottonwoods, is one of the host plants for the Red-spotted Purple butterfly, a mimic of the Pipevine Swallowtail (it has iridescent blue on the hindwings above, but it lacks the swallow-tails).
Let’s end with a native fruit tree, the persimmon. The Common Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a small tree with oval leaves that are pointed at the tip. The bark is broken into rectangular areas, rather like the skin of an alligator. The persimmon fruits are green and sour before ripening, but turn orange and sweet in fall.
I’m having fun learning about the trees, so I’ll go on to some more next month. I’ve been reading about their habits and identification in “The Sibley Guide to Trees” by David Allen Sibley, just published last year. Keep your eyes peeled this fall – you never know what neat trees you might run into.
The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be Oct. 6 and Nov. 3. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, please contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office, (940) 627-5475.
Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. If you would like to contact them, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.