New Year’s Resolution: Creating a Tree and Plant Life List for Your Woods

Posted: December 15, 2017

Create a tree and plant life list for your woods - a way for landowners to understand what they have on their land, and perhaps to track change.

As forestry educators, our role is to advance an understanding of the complexities of the woods, in hopes that greater understanding will lead to well-informed decision-making and well-cared-for lands. One privilege of our role is getting the opportunity to spend time with other forestry educators from other states, to discover new ideas and synergies as we promote good forest stewardship.

Earlier this month, at a northeast regional meeting, a colleague from Vermont shared the idea of a Woods Life List. We were struck by the simplicity of the idea, the recognition of the life list as a way for landowners to understand what they have on their land, and perhaps to track change – new species coming into an area, existing species falling off. With the start of the New Year around the corner, we lay a challenge on you – create a tree and plant life list for your woods. You may have a start of it in your forest management plan. You know trees and plants that you enjoy seeing. But what would a complete list capture that is new for you?

Tree species have ecological niches – growing conditions where they are more likely to succeed in outcompeting other species. Your forest may be an oak-hickory forest type, a northern hardwoods forest type, beech-maple, etc. Each type has tree species that are likely to occur within that region. But each site also has micro-niches where conditions are ideal for species not characteristic of the overarching forest type. What occurs on your land?

If you are or know birders, you know that life lists play a role, even for the most novice. Some are more dedicated than others in their tracking, but the finding of rarities, the tracking of the common, the creation of the physical record of species seen represent accomplishment.

If you’re starting life lists of trees in the winter, familiarity with tree buds, branching patterns, and bark is necessary. There are some excellent guides out that that cover bark and buds; having one on your shelf would be helpful. Bark is variable, but often unique between species – think about the chunky cog-like bark of the chestnut oak, the gold foil of the yellow birch, the white and reddish ski trails of the Northern red oak, burnt potato chips of black cherry. Branching patterns and structure will narrow things down quite a bit – trees with opposite branching are only a few: maple, ash, dogwood, honeysuckles, and horsechestnut. And if bark and branches can help you narrow it down, I will admit to searching the ground for fallen leaves to confirm my suspicions (shh!). Winter tree ID is sometimes considered a magical skill, but in actuality, it’s a lot about observation and learning the tricks to help you identify.

Starting in the winter means that the life list will first be populated by trees and woody shrubs – things you can identify without leaves. As the growing season comes in, pay attention to the early green. On woody shrubs that will likely indicate some non-native species – worth tracking on a life list? Maybe, but definitely worth noting for assessing extent and potential for control. There are also myriad spring ephemerals that make early appearances and are worthy of acknowledgement on your list. For many of the spring ephemerals, their presence is a good indicator that your deer population is in balance with the land – as those early natives are tasty treats.

As spring progresses, flowers and reproductive structures like cones (for the conifers) offer additional clues to identity. Recognizing that tree flowers are not often showy means that close observation (and a good pair of binoculars – trees are tall) will aid in identification.

Once we get to full leaf out, identification of trees and shrubs is usually the easiest. Again, a good guidebook is an excellent resource. Learn your leaf structures: needles versus broad leaves, compound versus simple, lobed versus unlobed, leaf edge descriptions – these are critical vocabulary for using many guides. You can currently access the Summer Key for Pennsylvania Trees on the Extension website. It contains excellent introductory descriptions of leaf structures.

Aesop was the first to coin the adage, “familiarity breeds contempt,” but we would offer a contradictory statement: familiarity breeds understanding, and understanding leads to well-informed decision making. Get familiar with your woods or the woods around you. Add a Tree Life List to your New Year’s resolutions. Get to know your spot and then go see what else you can discover in forests around the state, country, and world. Gaining familiarity and appreciation for the trees and plants in the woods ecosystem means that we’ll be more likely to protect it and take good care.

Contact Information

Allyson Brownlee Muth, Ed.D.
  • Interim Director, Center for Private Forests
Phone: 814-865-3208