It doesn't take a botany degree to understand nature
A Field Guide to Field Guides
by Rikki Hall
Can you tell an oak from a hickory or a grackle from a starling? If you know little about trees or birds, such questions might seem impossibly hard, but once you know what to look for, distinguishing a grackle from a starling can be as easy as glancing at the bird's tail. An experienced forester can tell an oak from a hickory at a great distance, just from the shape of the tree.
If you are not in the know, learning birds or trees can be like walking up to a hole you can't see the bottom of and hearing snakes hissing, "lenticels, naked buds, yellow lores, rump patches." You're not going to jump into that, are you?
It's not that intimidating if you follow a few basic guidelines. Resist the urge to fill that hole with a lot of anatomical nomenclature. You really don't need to know what a bud scar is just to get started learning trees. The day might come when you will want to know, but there is no rush.
Getting started by identifying trees in your neighborhood can be a bad idea as well, because trees planted around homes might be exotic trees that are not in your field guide.
Stick to natural areas like forests and woodlots so you are likely to run into the common, native trees.
Figuring out which trees are common is a good early step. Field guides often cover large areas--the eastern U.S. or North America--and include many species you are unlikely to encounter. Pay attention to the range maps. If the map says a certain species of oak only occurs west of the Mississippi, you can eliminate it from consideration. Checklists of local species can also help you narrow your search.
The key ingredient is patience. Take knowledge as it comes. Every tree produces flowers and fruits, and identification is usually much easier if you have one or the other. If there is an acorn on a tree, it's an oak. It might take a little effort to figure out if it's a red oak or white oak or one of the several other species, but it is surely an oak. Waiting for a tree to flower or set seed can be a great help.
The timing of flowering, leafout and fruiting are all great clues as to what kind of tree you've got, and most field guides include that information. Some trees flower before they grow leaves, others produce leaves first. Sourwoods don't flower until midsummer, an oddity that lets beekeepers know with relative certainty that honey produced in July and August comes from sourwood nectar.
Trees are about to go through roll call. Each species answers spring's beckoning with different timing and colors. Starting in February, buds will fatten up and give the bare trees a tinge of color. Red maples get red. Elms grow an orange haze of tiny flowers. Even if you don't know which tree corresponds to which color, you can look at a hillside and see how many different types of trees are in the forest.
All the trees budding into the same color at the same time are likely to be the same species, so even without knowing a name for them, you can study their bark and growth patterns and try to see what they have in common and what distinguishes them from other trees. Do they have a single, straight trunk or do they fork or twist and curl their way toward the canopy? Do the branches reach upward, downward or stay flat? Is the trunk smooth or flaky or furrowed?
If you take the time to watch trees throughout the year, you can get to know them without knowing their names, and you will also develop observational skills that will allow you to start learning more quickly. It's probably the observational skills you wanted more than an encyclopedic knowledge of tree anatomy.
Memorizing names is fine for what it's worth, but it's when you know what color flowers appear in what month, what color the leaves turn in fall and whether the fruits are nuts or helicopter seeds or black, fleshy globes that thrushes like to eat while migrating southward that the names really start to mean something.
Knox County's greenways keep growing and connecting. If you've always wanted to learn to identify trees, get out there on bike or on foot. Watch as the buds get ready to open and leaves start to grow. Take note of when seeds and flowers appear. At night, thumb through your field guide and figure out which trees grow in our area. Pick out a favorite leaf shape and try to find it. Let your observations and book knowledge merge gradually and your pit of knowledge will soon be filled with mysteries and delights.
Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.