Saturday, January 12, 2019

In Search of a Tree, 2019

January 2019 has arrived, and we tree-followers are faced with an important decision: What tree to follow? In years past, I’ve chosen a birch in my yard (convenient), a limber pine in the mountains east of town (spectacular habitat but immutable tree, and inaccessible in winter), a large cottonwood along the Laramie River (plenty of action and entertaining history), a willow in the foothills east of town (fascinating tree, pleasant hike), a juneberry at a plains lake south of town (inconvenient in winter), a fossilized extinct palm tree that grew 300 miles away (failed in two attempts to visit the site due to snowstorms), and last year a scrappy little boxelder next to a warehouse just a block from my house. The boxelder and the willow are my favorites so far.
Old Main, the beginning of the University of Wyoming, with old blue spruce.
This year I'm going to choose a tree on the University of Wyoming campus. It’s close by, and the landscaping includes deciduous trees (I'm done with conifers and fossils). I started my search in the large open space on the southwest corner of campus (above, in part), just south of the Aven Nelson Building (Botany Department). The vegetation is mainly grass and conifers, but the walkways are lined with flowerbeds (currently empty), and there are deciduous hardwoods scattered about.
In the background is the Aven Nelson Building and the Williams Conservatory.
A place to rest during tree-following.

Since it’s January, these trees have only scattered shriveled dead leaves. But let’s use our imaginations to visit them in a different time—specifically June of 2006. There’s no snow, the grass is green, and the flowerbeds along the walkways are brilliant with color: green, red, purple, yellow. The deciduous trees are fully leafed out, and beneath each one are three or four people, clustered together. They look closely at branches and bark, examine any leaves and buds within reach, stare at something in their hands, and then chat among themselves. They repeat this behavior until smiles appear on their faces. They are identifying trees with dichotomous keys.
During the mid 2000s (the “aughts”), I taught the summer taxonomy/field botany course at the University. It was always a pleasure, with enthusiastic students. Tax/field botany courses often start with an exercise in using a dichotomous key—a series of paired choices each of which eliminates a set of candidates, leading finally to the correct identification. The introductory exercise is often done with objects such as bolts, nuts, screws and nails, of various sizes (seriously!), but fortunately there were lots of trees near the Aven Nelson Building. We also had a wonderful little book—the Rocky Mountain Tree Finder (1). It’s easy and fun to use, and it works! In fact, it seems like magic the first few times you try it.
Now let’s return to that summer long ago. This time we will eavesdrop: “Are the leaves simple or compound—made up of several leaflets?” pause “Not sure, what’s a leaflet?” “Here, look at the picture.” “Nope, not compound.” “Do the leaves grow opposite each other on the stem or alternate?” “Looks opposite, let’s go with that.” “Is the leaf lobed? Here, look at the drawing.” “Yes” “Do the lobes have teeth on the margins?” Another little drawing … “Yes.” “Then it’s a Rocky Mountain Maple.” They call and wave me over, and I agree with them. “Wow, that’s so cool!” someone says, and they move on.
Opposite simple lobed leaves of Rocky Mountain Maple (courtesy TreeLib).
The groups shift from tree to tree, refining their skills. Then a most amazing thing happens. A University truck pulls up and parks close by. Two men get out, unload a small tree, and plant it! We stare in disbelief, then someone starts laughing and we all join in. “They brought us another tree to identify!”

The “surprise tree” 12.5 years later.
As you can see, the surprise tree is still alive. Of course I don’t remember its identity, or even if someone keyed it out. But I can see from the few dead leaves that it’s an oak. Is it one of our two natives? Possibly, based on leaf shape. Is it old enough to bloom and produce acorns? Not sure—still pretty small. Should I follow it? I’m tempted … such great memories! But for now, I will keep looking.

I want to end this post with a heartfelt “Thanks!” to Lucy Corrander of Loose and Leafy in Halifax, who introduced me and many others to tree-following. I so enjoy choosing and getting to know a tree each year, and will always be grateful for this. As many know, Lucy recently posted that she’s undergoing extended difficult medical treatment. My thoughts are with you, Lucy … best wishes to the original tree-follower!!


(1) The Rocky Mountain Tree Finder is just one in a series of tree, flower, cactus and other plant finders.


  1. Fascinating details as always!
    I look forward to hearing your final choice.
    All the best for 2019 :)

    1. Thanks, Pat. Final choice might be a ways off ... drove around the campus perimeter yesterday and nothing "grabbed me"

  2. It's so irritating that everyone in the whole world - except the Swedes - have enough common sense to base keys for identifying plants on vegetative parts. Swedes still stubbornly insist on creating and printing only linnaeus style keys where you always fail because you must count the various floral parts on the usually non-existing flowers to reach an answer. Grrr...

    1. ho ho ... interesting. Perhaps you can put together a Tree Finder for Sweden then :) Might be fun.