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COLUMN: Keep an eye out for Owen Bjorgan's tree buddies

My extensive time logged in Niagara’s forests has allowed me to recognize some of my favourite tree friends, even when their most defining features are invisible in winter

My extensive time logged in Niagara’s forests has allowed me to recognize some of my favourite tree friends, even when their most defining features are invisible in winter.

If you were to imagine someone you recognize on a daily basis, you’d know their hair, their height and other features.

However, could you identify the person if they only showed their eyes, with absolutely everything else obscured? This is much like identifying tree bark in the winter. You only need the bark to understand which species of woody giants you are sharing space with.

I have highlighted a handful of native tree species that you can find in most forested environments in southern Ontario, and I hope you can share a moment with them on your next nature excursion.

Let’s start with my pal ‘Shaggy,’ a tall and lanky individual also known as the shagbark hickory. The bark is flippy like a surfer dude’s, with vertical slats that curl outwards away from the main body. No other healthy tree in the Niagara Region has bark that radiantly flips off like this.

One theory pointing towards the peculiar shagginess is that this particular hickory evolved to produce a much more finicky bark that made it difficult for squirrels and other small mammals to climb. That’s because Shaggy wants to protect his nuts — quite seriously, located at the top of the tree. 

These edible hickory nuts are an ecological staple for squirrels, chipmunks, mice and even black bears where they still roam. The nut is edible to humans as well, and was a known source of protein and healthy fats for Indigenous peoples, ranging from the Cherokee in the southern Appalachians to the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples here in Niagara. 

Now, for my next friend in the forest, it only makes sense to go from Shaggy to the ‘Beech Boy.’ No, this is not a typo. The American beech is yet another local tree species that is easy to pick out of the crowd, even in the dead of winter. The bark is an enormous departure from the Shaggy’s style, as we are now looking for an impossibly smooth, grey look and texture. The only interruptions on this unusually smooth bark are these large and uncannily familiar eyeball markings. Shaped remarkably like a human eye, you can almost get the sense that the Beech Boy is taking a look
at you. 

Another winter giveaway for this tree, sometimes described as an elephant’s foot, is how it retains its copper coloured leaves throughout the cold months. The leaves rustle quietly in the indifferent winter winds, and won’t be dropped to the forest floor until spring, where it is believed they give the tree a nutritional boost in the soil.

This is just one of many tricks the Beech Boy does to stay healthy. Now, speaking of healthy, what did you have for breakfast this morning? Perhaps corn flakes. What about ‘Burnt Cornflakes’?

Notably, this is not an admirable or appetizing nickname for the black cherry tree; one of the most delicious trees present in the forest. No tree has bark like the black cherry tree, especially when you consider imagining one of the most ubiquitous cereals burnt to a black crisp. The bark is a series of little black ovals, with an undeniably rough touch for an otherwise sweet tree.

The tree has a history of odd timing and major developmental changes, though, much like some people. We are all built to experience life differently!

The bark is actually smooth and speckled for its first 10 years or so of existence, and then it changes to Burnt Cornflakes as we best recognize it. Once the black cherry begins producing tasty and edible cherries for people and wildlife alike, it undergoes a fruity eruption every four years where an exceptional batch is produced in big numbers. 

Wood thrushes, woodpeckers, orioles and bluebirds are just a handful of bird species that enjoy the berries. Interestingly, an individual nickname like Burnt Cornflakes shouldn’t be entirely trusted, as the leaves, young twigs, and hard pits contain traces of cyanide and have been known to harm or kill livestock. 

The final tree friend I would like to mention for the sake of winter identification skills, I must confess, is camouflaged. You might be wondering how on earth this makes picking this next tree out easy, but I should rephrase; this tree is the camouflage.

The unmistakable and strikingly beautiful American sycamore has bark patterns that look like half of the Bass Pro Shop clothing section. The bark is truly special in both appearance and function. Not only does it look like the classic camo pattern of army and outdoor wear, it is also one of the only tree species on the planet to exhibit photosynthesis through its bark. 

‘The Camouflage Tree’ is a fun one to pick out deep in a winter forest among crowds of oaks, maples, ashes and elm. There is always someone who comes dressed for the party, and people can’t help but turn their heads.

On your next winter hike, see if you can familiarize yourself with the most unique barks of the vertical wooded world. The shagbark hickory, American beech, black cherry and American sycamore are all unique individuals that you don’t have to be a botanist to get to know and love.

Owen Bjorgan is a documentary filmmaker and nature tour guide. He lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake.