Doctors Hate this Trick for Curing Tree Blindness

A plague has crippled the nation, tree blindness! Tree blindness refers to the idea that most people do not know anything about the trees that surround them every day, a term invented by Gabriel Popkin in his article “Cure Yourself of Tree Blindness”. Although many people could not distinguish a maple from an oak, that does not mean there is a lack of enthusiasm to learn. A large portion of the population understands and appreciates the value of nature and wildlife, as proven by the large number of visits National Parks receive each year. However, sitting someone down and explaining the differences in leaf complexity and margin may not be their ideal afternoon. For me personally, the idea of using trees and plants as a source of food has always interested me and was able to give me the motivation to start learning more about identifying them. Once a little bit of knowledge is acquired, you’ll be hooked, unable to walk down a forested trail without admiring and attempting to identify the canopy above you. However, it can be very overwhelming so this page will act as a good starting point and baseline for some simple tree identification.

Let’s Identify Some Trees

For our first tree, I’d like to introduce you to this Pignut Hickory tree, Carya glabra. I found this specimen while walking along the Olentangy Trail, which is right next to the Olentangy River. This makes a lot of sense, as Pignut Hickories tend to favor rich, moist soil. 

Taking a closer look, we can categorize these leaves as alternate, pinnately compound leaves. That can be a mouthful so let’s break that down a little. Having an alternate leaf pattern means that only one leaf will sprout from one node and alternate sides. For a leaf to be pinnately compound, the leaf is divided into leaflets arranged on each side.

As my interest lies in foraging, for each tree I will comment on how edible each nut or fruit is and the best way to prepare it. In the case of the Pignut Hickory, you might want to save their nut as a last resort. Although their nuts are edible, they are pretty bitter. However, you can crush the nut into flour or use the tree’s sap syrup (Source)

Next up is our state tree, the Ohio Buckeye, Aesculus glabra. I found this one on Ohio State’s campus, where they can be found all over. There is even a Buckeye Grove on the west side of campus that is dedicated to the beautiful Ohio Buckeye. However, if you are looking for a “wild” Buckeye, they are understory trees that prefer moist soil in the Western half of Ohio. Examining the Ohio Buckeye, we look for some patterns similar to the ones we saw in the Pignut Hickory. The Ohio Buckeye has opposite, palmately compound leaves. To have opposite leaves means to have two leaves sprout from the same node and palmately compound refers to leaflets that spread outward, like a palm.

Although the Ohio Buckeye’s fruits may appear appetizing, you might want to skip these, as they are not edible and toxic.

Next in the spotlight is a silver maple, Acer saccharinum. Now identifying maples can be a little intimating at first, however, I have always found the silver maple to be one of the easiest species to identify. When waving in the wind, you can see the “silver” undersides of their leaves. It looks a little like the tree is sparkly from a distance. The specimen I chose was found on Ohio State’s campus but in forests, they tend to prefer shade and can be found along streams, rivers, or flood plains.

Silver maples are opposite, simple with a lobed leaf margin. Oh goodness! Even more new terms?  A simple leaf is a leaf whose blade is not divided into leaflets, like in the previous examples. But it does have a lobed leaf margin, which gives it that iconic maple look. The lobed margins are the edges of the leaf, and in this case, lobed.

Lucky for us, the silver maple seed is edible and is known for being quite tasty, packed with protein and carbohydrates (Source). The perfect snack after a long day of identifying trees!

Introducing guest #4… the Ginkgo tree, or Ginkgo biloba. Ginkgo trees are actually native to China but were brought over to be used as ornamental trees and therefore won’t typically be found in Ohio forests. This specimen was found on the Ohio State campus (are you seeing a pattern here?) and was intentionally placed there as decoration.

The Ginkgo tree leaves are alternate, simple, and fan-shaped. The fan-shaped leaf has been used to symbolize longevity and endurance. In addition, not only are Ginkgo seeds edible but are commonly used as an ingredient in Asian dishes (source).

The next tree is one that doesn’t need any introduction, as it is one of the flashiest trees around in the spring, the Eastern Redbud, or Cercis canadensis. This specimen was found in the front yard of a neighbor of mine. This is pretty typical as they are commonly used in landscaping because of their beautiful spring blooms of pink flowers. However, in Ohio forests, they are understory trees that prefer moist and well-drained soil.

Eastern Redbuds leaves are alternate and simple with a small heart shape. Something interesting about Eastern Redbud is that not only are the seeds edible but the flowers too! Native Americans ate the flowers raw or cooked (source).

Our next species is similar to the silver maple, the sugar maple, or  Acer sacccharum. Sugar maple is a staple of the Ohio ecosystem and is one of the important hardwoods. I found this specimen while walking through my neighborhood. However, in forests, they can withstand many different climates and tend to prefer loamy sand soil. A large number of organisms depend on sugar maples for food and habitat.

Sugar maple leaves are opposite and simple. They are lobed as well, just like the silver maple. However, the sugar maple does not have a silvery underside. I tend to this of the sugar maple leaf as the “default” maple leaf, with other maple leaves being variations of it. In the fall, they are extremely vibrant, ranging from yellow, orange, or red.
In addition, just like the silver maple, their seeds are edible and tasty. The sugar maple also offers sap and is the most commonly tapped tree to make maple syrup.

The next tree gave me a little trouble when identifying, however, I was able to determine this next specimen is a Black Locust or Rohinia pseudoacacia. I discovered this tree while walking along the Olentangy River, in moist soil from the rain. Black locust trees do prefer wetter conditions. Be wary though, black locusts are somewhat invasive and are not recommended for planting. 
Examining the leaves of the black locust, we can categorize them as an alternate, and pinnately compound. Regarding the seed of the tree, it is poisonous to humans and livestock. It may look tasty but the seed would quench your hunger and then you’ll never have the privilege of being hungry again. The flowers, on the other hand, are edible and have been reported of tasting like sweet pea (source).

Last but not least is my favorite tree, the Sycamore, or Platanus occidentalis. The sycamore tree is such a pleasure to look at and admire. It has these large light green leaves and multicolored bark. I found a groove of sycamores in my neighborhood, all of them mature too. Typically, sycamores grow in moist conditions, sometimes even hanging over a body of water. A little survival tip is if you are lost and need to find water, look for large white trees, or sycamores! They can be depended on to lead you to an area with water.

Looking at the leaves of the sycamore, they are alternate, simple, and lobed. They have a very similar leaf shape as maple trees but the lobes are more shallow with a longer petiole. The leaves tend to be quite large too, about the size of your hand. However, one of the easiest ways to identify a sycamore is by its bark. They shed their grayish brown bark to reveal white wood beneath. Their bark is brown at the base and as you continue up the tree, the whiter it gets, as shown in the first picture.

Although the tree itself is beautiful if its fruit or seeds are ingested, it can cause a disease called Atypical Myopathy (source).

What a journey! There is so much more to learn about trees and the world around us. Ever since being able to identify even 1o trees, I am unable to stop myself from taking a picture of an unknown tree and figuring out what type of tree it is. Once your tree blindness is cured, the simple puzzle of discovering new species of tree is available to you. Don’t be held back by intimidation, start out small. Being able to recognize that a tree is simply a maple or oak is an amazing first step. Cure your tree blindness today!