I personally grew up in a ravine here in Columbus, Ohio, and growing up did not know as much about the local fauna than I care to admit. Of course I knew the basic oak and maple leaf shapes, but I did not know enough to tell the actual species apart, let alone every other wild plant readily available in my back yard. After learning about many woody plants throughout my studies in this class and others, going back to my childhood home in Clintonville and learning to see the trees through a new lens of knowledge was refreshing, and I wanted to share this experience with you, so you may do the same!
This first tree to add to your repertoire is rather important, since it is being added to Ohio’s no-grow list due its vast and successful invasive abilities. The Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), also known as the Bradford pear, is a species from China and Vietnam that made its way over in the 1960’s. It is most identifiable by its clustered brown/red fruit, and alternately simple leaves that are heart-shaped (chordate), waxy, serrated, and bunched at the end. The terminal buds (at the ends and forks of branches) are white and fuzzy. The flower blooms of a Callery pear are quite beautiful, however they release a rancid smell many find to be unpleasant. The bark of the Callery pear is not super unique, just brown and shallowly furrowed, but most of the branches are acutely angled. One of the main reasons the callery pear is unwanted is because of the pears that are grown. Once they mature many different species of wildlife eat the fruit, which is extremely devoid of nutrients, causing them to eat their fill but not gain any health benefits.
The next species to learn is a rather beautiful tree, found normally in the understory of forests, is the flowering dogwood. Its leaves are simple and opposite in arrangement, and shaped like an oval with wavy margins. During the spring they are a vibrant green, but in the fall turn to a deeper purple-red color. The flowering structures appear in the spring and are a beautiful white and pink. The bark of the flowering dogwood is very scaly, almost looking like an alligator hide. This tree is much more common once you realize what it is, and you can begin to see it everywhere, specifically for its beauty in both the fall and spring!
The following tree is, in my humble and limited opinion, one of the coolest looking species native to Ohio. The black cherry (Prunus serotina) is easily identifiable by its bark, which has a very flaky plates and is best described as a dragon breathing fire and burnt cornflakes to it. Its oblong serrated leaves are alternate and simple, and when they are crushed (this works for the bark as well), they emit a cherry-like scent. It is normally found on swell drained soils, and has a great quality of wood, as well as many uses for the fruit (wildlife, and are edible for humans). One last little trick for identifying this tree species (say if the bark is stripped, or it is a young sapling) is to look at the underside of the petioles, which will have black dots along it.
While the black cherry might take the cake for the coolest bark, this next species is definitely the grooviest! The hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is readily noticed by the many warts eclipsing the bark of the tree. Besides the bark, you can identify this tree from the medium sized alternate simple leaves that are doubly serrated everywhere except for the base of leaf. The hackberry has a dark purple fruit that lasts into the winter, so many wildlife species love the it! Celtis occidentalis is normally found on rich, well drained soils, but can grow in many situations.
All these previous plants have been deciduous trees, which are incredibly important to the ecosystem, but this next tree is easily one of my favorite coniferous trees! The Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), is a fantastic tree grown typically in higher and drier soils (rocky or sandy as well), but can also being extremely successful in every range of soil, as well as ranges of light. The EWP’s wood is great for timber, and wildlife love it due it being an evergreen (does not seasonally loose its needles/leaves). It is identifiable by its needles (which are their leaves, just specialized for colder climates) which are unsheathed and 5-7 per bundle, and its pine cones (fruiting structure), which are softer and more flexible than most. Its bark is a red/brown that is plated, which becomes much easier to see as it grows since it self prunes its lower branches!
There are two “groups” of oaks, white and red. While there are species that fall under white or red, we are going to focus on the specific red species, the Northern red oak. Quercus rubra is both a valuable native tree species, but also is a beautiful tree when matured. Its bark its vertically furoughed, almost mimicking ski slopes. The Northern red oak not only has a tell-tale bark, but its leaves are also quite easily differentiated from white oaks, due to its lobes being pointy, or the veins extending past the margin of the leaf (seen below).
The pawpaw tree is not quite as common as some of the previous trees, but it is in similar areas if you know what to look for. Typically growing in the understory of wet, rich soils, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a small tree known particularly for its tasty fruit. The banana-like tasting fruiting bodies are known to be ripe when they fall off the tree by gently shaking a branch, but if you miss this short window of opportunity, they will be eaten incredibly fast by the local wildlife. You can identify this tree by its massive, alternate and simple tear-drop shaped leaves that grow to about a foot long. The pawpaw’s bark is smooth and brown and unoriginal, but its buds are very prominent and shaped like a claw.
The last tree on my list is just outside of my top 3 favorite trees, and that is the Cottonwood. While Populus deltoides may not be the best tree for lumber, it is quite sought after due to its size and rapid growth, as well as its use for wind breaking! Its leaves are alternate and simple, and shaped like massive triangles, but what helps them break the wind is their flattened petioles. This allows them to move with high winds without damaging itself too much. I could not find a good enough mature specimen to get a picture of the bark, but it is a beautiful tree with big blocky segments going vertically.