The giants among us
For all the vaunted magnitude of the largest animal that ever lived, and still lives, consider the largest living trees. A few giant coast redwoods skyscrape nearly four hundred feet above their California roots, while the tallest tree of our eastern forests, the white pine, may shoot nearly two hundred feet toward the energy source that fuels its prodigious growth. By comparison a blue whale is puny. From stem to stern, the largest individuals measure not quite a hundred feet.
In the Adirondacks and across much of the North American landscape, trees loom larger than any other kind of organism. Every one of us is interested in them, or so I’ve found in the course of leading nature walks for thirty-five years. Still, what do we know of them? What do I know? Not half as much as I’d like to.
That’s going to change, thanks to the release of an astonishing new tree guide from Princeton University Press: Trees of Eastern North America, written by Richard Spellenberg, Christopher J. Earle, and Gil Nelson and illustrated by David More.
Let’s get the only serious shortcoming of the book out of the way first. This volume is labeled as a “field guide,” and a guide it certainly is. Yet most of us will find the book too heavy and bulky to carry into the field. Alas, this is a trend. The latest generation of field guides, and not just those published by Princeton, tend toward great heft. Electronic versions uploaded into handheld devices allow these books to slip into a pocket in a pair of jeans, as earlier field guides could. Yet those of us forced or inclined to work with hard copy will be inclined to leave the book at home.
What makes the Princeton tree guide so big is in part its generous range. In scope it’s the antithesis of Ed Ketchledge’s excellent Forests and Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region, a slim volume that disappears into a day pack and narrows its focus to the Adirondack core. The Princeton guide throws in the whole apple, stem, skin, flesh, and all. You get not only the spruces, firs, and heart-leaved birches of our high ground but the black calabash and poisontree of south Florida, the rare and declining Florida torreya that grows only on limestone bluffs along the lower Apalachicola River, the mountain cedar and redberry juniper of Texas, and the bottlebrush buckeye of Alabama. Snowbirds spending part of the year in the North Country and the cold months deep in Dixie will find the southern elements in the guide especially useful.
The illustrations in the Princeton tree volume are superb: colorful, accurate, and appealing. Appeal is not to be underestimated. It’s a key to motivating the users of any field guide to grapple with the challenging work of identifying subjects in the wild. The account for each species includes color illustrations of the whole tree, the flowers (in some cases), the leaves, the fruit, and the bark.
The authors have chosen to include shrubs in their new guide as well as trees. Why clutter a tree book with bushes? It’s a matter of common sense. When you’re out in the woods and you want to identify a woody plant that stands waist-high, there’s no sure-fire way to tell whether it’s destined for greatness or will always hunker close to the ground. Also, some Adirondack trees, such as the striped maple, are often shrublike, and a few Adirondack shrubs, such as the speckled alder, exhibit treelike form at times. It makes sense to be inclusive. Being inclusive makes this guide more useful than any tree book published since George Petrides’s second edition of his excellent Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs forty-two years ago.
One of the things I’ll treasure about the new Princeton tree guide is the rich trove of gee-whiz material that’s tucked deftly into the descriptive accounts. The longest lived tree in the world, at least as far as scientists can tell us, is the bristlecone pine of Nevada, California, and Utah. One vintage specimen, I learned from the western companion volume, is known to be five thousand years old! But what about the East? My hunch for longest-lived tree this side of the Mississippi would have been the eastern hemlock. I’d have gotten it wrong. The answer, according to the authors, is the arbor vitae, a tree that abounds in the Adirondacks, where most of us call it “white cedar.” Northern white cedar is not a cedar at all but a member of the Cupressaceae, the family that includes the giant sequoia and the coast redwood. The Methuselah of eastern trees may live, according to the book, “up to 1,890 years.” Some of the oldest looking ones I’ve seen in the Adirondacks grow at the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center, where you can pay homage to them along the trail to Rich Lake.
Other interesting facts about Adirondack trees abound. The oldest-known balsam fir when it was cut down was less than 250 years old. The white spruce is “the most economically important timber tree in the boreal forest,” its wood used for construction framing and the making of musical instruments. No mention of the fact that when you cut it, and sometimes even when you rub its needles on a wet day, white spruce gives off a smell like that of cat urine. Black spruce, small tree that it tends to be, is cut widely in the north for pulpwood and chopsticks! The butternut, or white walnut, once a widely distributed nut tree in northern New York, has been nearly driven out of its former range by a fungus with a scientific name so long—Sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum— that most of us could never begin to spell it, let alone say its name. And finally, the red maple, which graces most Adirondack forests except at high altitude, grows over a natural span of latitude, from Canada to south Florida, that exceeds that of any other eastern tree.
It’s all here: the trees you’ll see, 825 species in all, the technical specifications of their leaves, buds, twigs, trunks, and bark, handsome helpful illustrations, the latest thinking on who is related to whom, up-to-date scientific names, and a great many of the stories about trees worth the telling. If you love large and extra-large plants, and if you hunger to know more about them, Princeton’s Trees of Eastern North America is well worth coming home to and sometimes even hauling into the woods.