As a freshly admitted student, I came to UConn in the School of Fine Arts. However, I realized that wasn’t the right path for me before I even attended classes, switching my major to Environmental Studies, in CLAS, at my freshman orientation. But I soon found that Environmental Studies was too broad a field for me, and I was missing science classes. So, I explored new, more focused majors, which led me to CAHNR and the Sustainable Forest Resources concentration in the Natural Resources Program. I took Dendrology with Professor Tom Worthley in the fall of 2018, and the rest is history! So I thought I’d share some of the learning that brought me to where I am: about to graduate from CAHNR with a degree that I loved earning. Without further ado, here is a quick guide to recognizing a couple of trees that can be found around the UConn Storrs campus!
In order to begin identifying trees, it is important to acknowledge that tree ID is not an exact science; every individual tree is unique, and there is a lot of variation within all the individuals of a species, the same way no two humans or cats look exactly alike! Even the most experienced identifier may be stumped by a tree every once in a while, (pun intended) especially due to the existence of hybrids; just like a tiger and lion can mate and produce a liger, trees of different species can sometimes produce offspring as well. So, it would often be impossible to know a tree’s species without breaking the question down to the tree’s very DNA. For this reason, I think of Tree ID as more of a mystery to be solved than an equation with a perfect solution.
The best way to identify trees is to start by examining the bark, then branching patterns, seeds, flowers, and buds. Leaves are also helpful, but they’re not always available. The characteristics you might look for in bark include color, the size and shape of any scales, hardness, and any unique identifiers like lenticels (regularly spaced markings) or blonding (stripped outer layers of bark). The two branching patterns in trees are opposite, meaning that pairs of branches and pairs of leaves grow from the same node on opposite sides of a branch, and alternate, meaning that pairs of branches and pairs of leaves grow from their own separate nodes on a branch. Seeds take on all shapes, sizes, and colors, as do flowers, buds, and leaves.
All that being said, I will just cover a few trees that have what I call a dead-giveaway trait — one that, if you spot it on a tree around UConn, is 99.99% sure to indicate what species that tree is.
There are five hickories native to New England, but Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) is the easiest to identify because of the shaggy appearance of its bark. Bats often roost in the loose strips of this tree’s bark. Shagbark Hickory is very tall when mature, so you usually won’t be able to use buds to identify this tree. The leaves are compound, meaning that many leaflets make up one leaf. In the case of Shagbark Hickory, there are five leaflets to one leaf. The seeds have a light green casing (maturing to brown), are divided into four sections, and are a little bit bigger than a golf ball. Squirrels love to eat them. Due to its significance to squirrels and bats, this species is denoted as a wildlife species, and is considered to be of high value in a forest ecosystem. Shagbark Hickory trees can be found at UConn on the green space between the Arjona Building, West Campus Residence Halls, Whitney Road, and Gilbert Road.
Pine is often misconstrued as an umbrella term including all conifers, but it is actually just one genus of many included in the conifer group. Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is the predominant pine species in New England. The bark has papery, layered scales that are usually gray and reddish-orange in places. Since most conifers are evergreen, identification by leaf is possible year round. Eastern White Pine needles are long, thin, and pliable. There are five needles to a fascicle, or bundle. It can be found on campus on the edge of the Great Lawn right next to North Eagleville Road (between the Austin Building, Storrs Congregational Church, and the Young/Ratcliffe Hicks Buildings).
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is another conifer native to New England. Its needles are short and flat and arranged along opposite sides of twigs. The top sides of the needles are a brighter green while the bottom is a more muted green with two distinct white lines. As can be seen in the photos, hemlock trees are currently under stress from the invasive Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. The Adelgid attaches to the base of the needles, sucking out the tree’s nutrients. They are white and fuzzy and look like a dusting of snow. They can be eliminated by an arborist using horticultural oil. A small stand of them can be found behind Gulley Hall, between Beach Hall and the Family Studies Building.
River Birch (Betula nigra) is a common tree found in landscaping around UConn, though they normally grow near wetlands. The bark peels off of the young trees in haphazard, papery sheets. Young bark has patches of many different colors including white and shades of brown. In the fall, River Birch’s arrowhead-shaped leaves turn yellow. The leaves’ margins are double serrated, which means that there is a large pattern of serration along the edges of the leaves, and a second, smaller pattern of serration along the larger serration. They can be found to either side of the Fairfield Way entrance to the Homer Babbidge Library most notably, but are scattered all across campus. (Bonus: the Pine tree behind the River Birch to the left of the Library entrance is also an Eastern White Pine!)
For more information on the many trees of the UConn campus, check out the Arboretum Committee’s webpage at arboretum.uconn.edu. They have a map of all the trees on campus, among plenty of other resources for the tree-curious. And if you’re curious about learning more Tree Identification in general, I cannot recommend Michael Wojtech’s BARK: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast and David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Guide to Trees enough- they have beautiful photos/illustrations of every tree you might come across! Thanks for reading!