I'm not that great at identifying trees.
I do OK with some when the leaves are readily recognizable -- such as oaks and maples. But I like a challenge, so on a nice day last week, I took a walk along the trails at Hogback Ridge Park in Sunbury to see how many I could figure out -- without looking at leaves, and without the help of a book or a more-knowledgeable staff member.
Assuming bark would be my best indicator, I set out.
I did pretty well with the trees that have distinctive bark. Mature black cherry trees have very dark bark that looks like burnt corn flakes. The bark of shagbark hickories is, as one might expect, shaggy. Beech trees have smooth, gray bark that is easy to carve your name into (but don't, please). And sycamores are not much of a challenge, because of the cool way the top parts of the tree show camo-to-pure-white bark.
But put me in front of various oaks, maples and walnuts, and I am lost without looking at the leaves. (Ash trees would have fit in this category too, but sadly, they are all too recognizable right now because they are dying or dead due to the emerald ash borer. Such a loss to our forests.)
To me, all this bark looks pretty much alike, and descriptions, which I found in a book later, read like these: "white and flaky plates" (white oak); "furrowed or fissured, forming a crisscross pattern" (black walnut); and "deeply furrowed and flaking" (silver maple).
See what I mean? Confusing. And all the bark still looks alike to me.
So I went out again, book in hand, when a new answer came to me in the form of hard objects landing on the ground nearby: nuts! Of course. 'Tis the season for tree nuts to be harvested, and during my walk, I could hear the bigger ones crashing into the crackly leaves on the woodland floor.
Remembering autumns past, I looked on the trail for a scattering of acorns that would indicate oak trees. Unfortunately, I found only a few, even after venturing off-trail and closer to tree trunks. This could mean several things: I was looking at the wrong trees (even though I cheated and looked up at the leaves); the acorns had not fallen from the trees yet; the squirrels and other wildlife already had removed them; or this was a bad year for acorn production.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife acorn survey for 2017 had not been released as of last week, so I don't know for sure. But I do hope there is not a dearth of acorns this year. Many wildlife, squirrels and white-tailed deer included, depend on them. I'll have to wait and see.
I continued my walk, looking now for the larger nuts that were making all the racket as they fell from trees. Of these, I found plenty. I didn't have to go far to see a black walnut tree, just outside the park office's front door. It was laden with fruit: green tennis-ball-sized outer husks hanging from the trees. Cracked open, they will reveal a dark-brown interior that will stain your hands; pioneers used the husks to dye cloth. The kernel inside is rich, oily and edible.
The other nut I found in abundance came from hickory trees. The outer husk, also green, is about 2 inches in diameter and will break apart into four pieces as it dries. Squirrels love walnuts and hickory nuts, so I imagine those I found on the ground won't last long.
So what did I learn during my little foray into the woods? I might never be great at identifying trees, but I don't need to know all the identifying marks of each tree. Maybe knowing the leaves of some, the bark of others and the nuts from still others is enough.
None of it is necessary, however, when my primary reason for a walk in the woods is just to soak in the big picture. It's fall; I'm planning to enjoy it!
For more information about parks, programs and special events, visit preservationparks.com or call 740-524-8600.
Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.