Terrific Trees

By Matt Seek | September 1, 2021
From Xplor: September/October 2021
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sugar maple
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Terrific Trees
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Bet you can’t get through today without using something that comes from trees. If you’re reading this magazine, you’ve already lost — paper, of course, comes from trees. So does the lumber in your house, the circuit board in your smartphone, and the diapers on your baby brother. Trees provide homes for animals, produce the oxygen we breathe, offer shade on a summer day, and hold soil in place so it doesn’t wash away. In short, trees are terrific!

Over 150 kinds of bark-covered beauties grow in Missouri. Next time you explore your backyard, a city park, or a shady forest, look closely at each tree’s leaves, bark, and seeds. You’ll soon be able to tell one tree from another.

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flowering dogwood
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Habitat: Prefers well-drained soils on wooded slopes, ridges, and field edges.

ID Clues: Flowering dogwood is more of a shrub than a tree. In the spring, it unfurls beautiful, white, flower-like bracts. In the fall, it produces red, football-shaped berries.

That’s Nuts! Flowering dogwood is Missouri’s official state tree.

Maximum height: 40 feet

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black oak leaf
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Habitat: Found on rocky ridges, glades, and along the edges of woods.

ID Clues: The inner bark is mustard-yellow to orange. Like all oaks in the “red oak group,” this tree has leaves with pointy tips.

That’s Nuts! Native Americans used black oak bark to make tea that they drank to cure everything from asthma to diarrhea.

Maximum Height: 70 feet

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White Oak
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Habitat: Prefers dry slopes but can be found in nearly any forest, woodland, or savanna statewide.

ID Clues: The blocky bark becomes scaly on large limbs. In open areas, white oaks may grow wider than they are tall.

That’s Nuts! White oaks are one of the longest living shade trees in Missouri. Some have lived over 450 years!

Maximum Height: 120 feet

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Photo of eastern red cedar showing leaves and female cones
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Habitat: Found nearly everywhere: open, rocky woods, glades and bluffs, pastures, roadsides, and fencerows.

ID Clues: Cedars have aromatic, evergreen, needlelike leaves. They produce small, bluish-purple berries.

That’s Nuts! Many trees are both male and female. Cedar trees usually have separate sexes. Male cedars produce tiny cones. Females produce berries.

Maximum Height: 50 feet

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Shagbark Hickory
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Habitat: Found in bottomland forests along streams and upland forests on slopes and ridges.

ID Clues: The long, shaggy strips of bark on this tree’s trunk are a dead giveaway. Also look for tasty nuts that begin dropping from the tree in September.

That’s Nuts! During summer, endangered bats raise their babies and sleep under this hickory’s shaggy bark.

Maximum Height: 100 feet

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eastern redbud blossoms
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Habitat: Found in open woodlands, the edges of woods, and along rocky streams and bluffs.

ID Clues: The heart-shaped leaves are a good clue you’ve found a redbud. In the spring, redbuds produce colorful pink flowers. In the fall, they produce beanlike brown pods.

That’s Nuts! Redbud flowers are edible. They have a sweet, nutty taste.

Maximum Height: 40 feet

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cottonwood leaf
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Habitat: Occurs in damp lowlands near streams and rivers.

ID Clues: In June, cottonwoods release tiny brown seeds that are attached to fluffy, cottonlike fibers. A large tree can produce 25 million seeds!

That’s Nuts! Cottonwood is Missouri’s fastest growing native tree. Under ideal conditions, it can reach a height of 50 feet in just six years.

Maximum Height: 100 feet

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black walnut leaf
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Habitat: Grows in damp woods at the foot of hills and bluffs, in valleys along streams, and in open woods.

ID Clues: When crushed, the leaves release a distinct odor. Tennis-ball-sized nuts covered in thick green husks drop from the tree in September.

That’s Nuts! Walnuts produce a poisonous chemical that prevents other plants from growing nearby.

Maximum Height: 90 feet

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american elm
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Habitat: Grows best in low, damp ground in valleys and along streams.

ID Clues: Elms usually have a spreading, fan-shaped crown. The upper surfaces of their leaves are shinier than the undersides.

That’s Nuts! American elms were once widely used as shade trees along city streets. Unfortunately, a disease wiped out thousands of the elms that were planted.

Maximum Height: 70 feet

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sycamore leaf
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Habitat: Found on floodplains (where they grow massive in rich soils), bottomland forests, and along rivers.

ID Clues: The upper trunk and branches usually have smooth white bark. In the fall, sycamores produce brown seed-balls that remain on the tree over winter.

That’s Nuts! About 98 percent of all great blue heron nests in Missouri are found in sycamore trees.

Maximum Height: 120 feet

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silver maple
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Habitat: Found in bottomland forests, at the edges of streams, and planted around homes.

ID Clues: Silver maples release “helicopter” seeds in late spring. The underside of each leaf is whitish-silver. When the leaves flutter in the wind, the tree looks silver.

That’s Nuts! Silver maples grow quickly but tend to have weak branches that may break in wind, snow, or ice storms.

Maximum Height: 100 feet

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hackberry leaf
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Habitat: Grows in damp woodlands throughout Missouri.

ID Clues: If you see a tree with a “warty” trunk, you’ve probably found a hackberry. Hackberries produce reddish-orange berries that turn purple and stay on the tree through winter.

That’s Nuts! Hackberry fruits are sweet and edible, perfect for munching on a fall hike. But be careful! Other plants have poisonous berries.

Maximum Height: 90 feet

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Illustratin of river birch leaves, flowers, fruits.
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Habitat: Usually found in damp ground along streams.

ID Clues: Peeling, papery bark is a good clue you’ve found a river birch. The leaves are smooth and green on top and fuzzy and lighter (almost white) underneath.

That’s Nuts! River birches sprout quickly on bare stream banks. Their roots help hold the soil in place so it doesn’t wash away.

Maximum Height: 80 feet

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Habitat: Occurs in bottomland forests along streams, sloughs, swamps, and ponds.

ID Clues: Deep grooves in this tree’s bark form diamond patterns.

That’s Nuts! Ash trees have historically been the preferred wood for making baseball bats.

Maximum Height: 80 feet

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Tree-riffic Treasure Hunt

It’s time to branch out! How many of these tree-related treasures can you find?

  • Red leaf
  • Orange leaf
  • Yellow leaf
  • Green leaf
  • Purple leaf
  • An evergreen tree (like cedar or pine)
  • Moss growing on a tree
  • Acorn
  • Hickory nut
  • Squirrel gnawing on an acorn
  • Leaf gall
  • Bird nest
  • Holes left by a woodpecker
  • Caterpillar munching on a tree’s leaf
  • Spiderweb in a tree’s branches
  • Bird perched on a branch
  • Football-shaped leaf
  • Mushroom growing on a tree
  • Heart-shaped leaf
  • Vine growing up a tree. (Don’t touch! It could be poison ivy.)
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Attention, tree huggers! Leaf it to this field guide to help you get acquainted with your barky buddies.

Also In This Issue

This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Alexis (AJ) Joyce
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White