Taking Notice of Woods in the Winter

Tyler Armstrong of the South Fork Natural History Museum examines the bark of a Black Locust tree on the grounds near SOFO’s museum on Sunday, December 30. (Michael Heller Photo)


By Emily J. Weitz

From the five pointed leaves of maple trees to the jagged edges of oak tree leaves, there are some pretty well known ways to identify the trees in our area.

But it’s winter and the branches are bare.

In the quiet of the forest on a crisp January day, there’s no better time for a hike. And there are still plenty of ways to appreciate what you’re seeing. Even if the obvious identifying aspects of the trees are gone, like the leaves and flowers, this gives nature lovers the opportunity to look more closely and see the subtle beauty.

Tyler Armstrong of the South Fork Natural History Museum (SOFO) recently led a hike through the Long Pond Greenbelt, teaching people how to identify and appreciate the trees in winter. Armstrong points out that certain trees are actually more interesting to look at in the winter because of the bark.

“Sassafras,” he says, “has interesting bark with channels running through it. There’s a dark reddish color to the bark, and you can identify the sassafras easily because the trunk and branches are twisty and never go straight up.”

Another local winter tree he likes to seek out is the shag bark hickory.

“As it grows larger, the bark on the outside stays the same size,” he explains. “So the bark cracks in different ways. It comes off in long, vertical strips. These strips curl off the tree in a very distinct way.”

As the bark curls off, new bark growing underneath is revealed.

“All trees deal with this,” says Armstrong. “They grow from the inside, so the outer layers are forced to expand. Those old outer layers aren’t growing anymore, so they have to deal with that growth in different ways. There’s a distinct form the bark takes as it’s broken or stretched. A lot of trees develop furrows where the bark separates.”

This is another identifying factor — the way old bark adapts to the new.

“In a red oak tree, you’ll see deep canyons in the side of the tree and you can actually see the red. A white oak has more shallow furrows, and the bark forms strips that you could pull off.”

Armstrong thinks it’s important to be able to identify trees in the winter for a few reasons. First, he cites survival.

“If you know the different trees,” he says, “you can use them to find food. Certain mushrooms are associated with certain trees. Turkey tail mushrooms are found with oak trees, for example. Or if you find an oak, you know you can find an acorn, which you could eat if you were starving.”

Knowing the different trees can also have a more recreational purpose when you’re out on a winter hike, though. You can use an understanding of the trees to find different wildlife.

“White tailed deer tend to hide under the bows of evergreen trees,” says Armstrong. “Since they have needles throughout the year, it can be a bit warmer in there, and when there is snow on the bows, it’s a place to hide. Deer will sleep underneath trees in the winter.”

Other animals also use trees as a place to hide. Any tree that has holes or crevices is enticing to animals seeking shelter.

“Certain trees, like oaks and maples, have good cavities,” points out Armstrong. “Animals like owls will hide there.”

Then there are the trees that produce food for animals. Hickory trees produce edible nuts, as do shag bark trees. Deer and wood ducks count on these sources of food, and can be seen foraging near these trees this time of year.

The idea for this hike was really to share a love of the forest in winter.

“I think people out here get excited with nature in summertime,” says Armstrong. “It’s such a summer area… People expect everything to be dead or hiding in the winter. Once I was walking through the snow, expecting that. And all of a sudden a young deer popped up from the brush in the snow, three feet from me. It was startling, and made me realize we are sharing the land here with animals all year round.”

Armstrong emphasizes that the winter is a great time to notice trees that you otherwise might not even see.

“The evergreens become a lot more noticeable,” he says. “Like holly, which looks gorgeous in the winter with its red berries… I just want people to have more confidence in the forest. I want people to feel like the forest is a welcoming place any time of year, and not a place you should try to hide from or be protected from.”