Tree blindness: what is it, how to cure it, and why it is important

Gabriel Popkin of The New York Times recently authored an opinion piece detailing how the average American walks around oblivious to the intricacies of trees. Popkin notes that we no longer are dependent on everyday knowledge of trees for survival. Thanks to modern comforts, we have grocery stores, fast food, and handymen a mere phone call away so knowing which trees provide sturdy lumber or sustenance is now deemed a surplus to required learning. This is a condition that botanists have labeled “tree blindness.”

However, despite tree literacy not being a section on the SAT or a requirement for securing housing, Popkin notes there are still plenty of reasons to familiarize oneself with the gentle green giants. There is the entertainment and beauty of spring blossoms, astonishment and carnage of invasive pests like the emerald ash borer and dutch elm disease, and the fulfillment of foraging for a free meal. Trees are also an indicator of ecological health and an easy way to engage with nature.

I can not agree with Popkin more on all of these points, I just wish he had gone into more depth on the ecological benefit of trees, especially in a city setting, because many people are not aware. Trees help improve air quality, reduce energy usage, moderate temperature, reduce erosion and runoff, and that is all without mentioning the habitat and food they provide to other insects and animals. For us Columbusites (Columbusians? Columbusers?), we currently have just 22% urban tree canopy cover, which when combined with our ever sprawling development has led to Columbus having one of the worst heat island effects in the country.

Aright, enough of the soapbox for now, just plant some trees and enjoy them!

Identifying trees

The best way to cure tree blindness is to get outside and appreciate trees. In spite of Columbus’ lack luster canopy cover, there are plenty of opportunities to do just that in Ohio if one is so inclined. Here’s a real shocker – I am so inclined! In fact, I made a trip down to Clear Creek Metro Park in Rockbridge, to do just that. Clear Creek, approximately 45 minutes south east of Columbus off Route 33, is Ohio’s largest state nature preserve and home to Ohio’s last remaining colonies of rhododendron. Featuring multiple miles of trails, crisscrossing the park’s 5,300 acres of woodland, sandstone cliffs, ravines, and creeks. The following individuals were spotted along the Hemlock Trail, which meanders up and down a ravine and stars groves of hemlocks and fern carpets among the sandstone bluffs.

First a foremost, here is a beautiful Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana L.) specimen featuring simple, alternate leaves. Although this shrub may not seem like much, it is quite unusual both ecologically and anthropologically. According to William M. Harlow’s Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada, Witchhazel will “forcibly eject” their seeds away from the plant. Also, Witchhazel is apparently used by “water diviners,” a bizarre and entirely unscientific means of locating water. The diviners place a forked branch of the plant between their hands and twirl the forks until they find water or precious metals, which lead to the name Witchhazel.

Overall shape/form

 

Leaf arrangement

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of alternate, simple leaves, next we have the whimsical looking leaves of the Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera L.). Harlow notes that the Tuliptree gained the nickname “saddleleaf tree” because of the lobes of the leaves with a broad notch at the apex. Also, Harlow notes the commercial importance of Tuliptrees due to how easily workable the soft wood is, which makes it ideal as a veneer core.

Young tuliptree

Leaf arrangement

 

Next we have the Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria Michx.), which are once again has alternate and simple leaves. While I was using Harlow’s Trees to identify this specimen, I had no idea it was an oak because of how un-oak like the leaves are and actually spent a good 15 minutes making sure I didn’t misidentify it! Fortunately, I do not think I am alone in this because Harlow notes that the only giveaway based on the leaves that this is an oak is the bristle tip at the apex of the leaves. Fun fact: this is known as the shingle oak because pioneers used to make roof shingles from it.

Shingle Oak saplings

Leaf arrangement

Bigger shingle oak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh boy, more whimsical leaves! This time, the Sassafras (Sassafras variifolium (Salisb.)) is the culprit. Sassafras have (you guessed it!) simple, altnernate leaves with three different leaf shapes all on the same tree. This tree is remarkable not for use as lumber, but rather for the flavorings it provides. Sassafras has a very distinctive “spiciness” to it that Harlow notes is used to make tea, beer, soups, and much more.

Sassafras tree form/shape

Leaf arrangement. Somehow I managed to get a pic of only one of the three leaf shapes. Zoinks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This next specimen is perhaps known more as a weed than anything else (as per Harlow), so keep that in mind if you see it growing somewhere you don’t want it to. Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago L.) is part of the honeysuckle family and features simple, alternate leaves (no surprise there). It is more shrub than tree, but it’s woody so it counts. Notice the unusual grooved leaf stems.

Nannyberry shape/form

Leaf arrangement

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RED ALERT! Stay away from this next specimen if you value your skin and your sanity. It is colloquially known as Poison-sumac (Toxicodendron vernix (L.)) and should be ingrained in the mind of anyone who spends time in the bush. It is typically found in wet places (makes sense I found it in a ravine then). The leaves are pinnately compound and alternate. Brushing against the leaves (even in the winter) causes poisoning and is easy to do when not aware because of the thickets it grows in and the attractive red color of the leaves in fall.

Leaf arrangement with tell-tale red fruit

Note the dense thicket

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This next specimen should be familiar to anyone who has spent any time near a stream bank. Sycamore Planetree (Planitus occidentalis L.) are easy to spot considering their large size (including the greatest diameter of any eastern tree according to Harlow) and distinctive mottled bark pattern. Sycamores have alternate, simple leaves and coarsely toothed margins with 3-5 lobes. Apparently, per Harlow, the Illinois French made dugout canoes out of Sycamores, including one as large as 65 feet long!

The mottled bark is incredibly easy to spot

Leaf arrangement

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last and certainly not least is a perfect example of the beauty of nature, and trees in particular: the never give up attitude! I believe we can bring this attitude with us into curing tree blindness as well because although we may never be able to fully cure tree blindness, that does not mean we should stop trying. Similarly, after hiking through Clear Creek for just a few hours, I felt like I’ll never have a full grasp of even the leafy trees of Ohio, let alone the needle trees or flowers, vines, ferns, mosses, etc but that does not mean I will give up!

I get knocked down, but I get up again!

Thanks for reading.