Tree Blindness

If you’re like me, you might be able to identify some basic, common trees like oak, or maple. But other than that, trees are just trees. Botanists call this being “tree blind”.

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece titled “Cure Yourself of Tree Blindness”. The author, Gabriel Popkin, says that tree blindness can easily be cured by learning how to identify just a handful of species. I completely agree. Even with my limited tree identification knowledge, I’m constantly looking around, and paying attention, to try and find some trees that I know. Just knowing a few trees will help you be more connected and grounded with nature.

Popkin talks about the ability to use the fruit and nuts from trees as food, as the main reason for needing to cure tree blindness. While I agree that knowing if you can eat something or not is cool and helpful, I think the main reason for curing tree blindness should be making people more aware and connected to the environment around them. If people were to know about the trees around them, I think that they would care at least a little bit more. Example: back in Virginia, my family had a magnolia tree that we named Maggie. We knew the tree. And everyone cried when it died.

Deforestation, both large and small scale is a huge problem. Cutting down an acre of trees for a new office building is still bad, even if the deforestation in the Amazon is worse. If people were to be less blind to the trees around them, and the benefits the trees provide, the Earth would be a much more healthy place. Step number one…:

Identifying some Ohio trees

In Popkin’s “Cure Yourself of Tree Blindness” article he talks about how “in 2012, I took an ecology course in Wisconsin in which we learned to identify 14 tree species…Suddenly the largest, most conspicuous living beings in my environment were no longer strangers. The trees lining my street in Madison with the rough, saucer-size leaves were basswoods. The giant in my backyard with the diamond bark and opposing rows of leaflets neatly lined up like soldiers was an ash.” It sounds like an exaggeration, but that really is how it feels. Well, I’m not THAT good at identifying things yet, but whenever I see a tree with alternate, serrated, pinnately compound leaves, all I think is WALNUT?! BLACK WALNUT?!

A quick note; all of the eight trees that I’m about to share with you were found on the west side of Columbus, in what I would call a “woodsy residential” habitat.

First up!! We’ve got

Red maple!! (Acer rubrum)

You’re probably wondering “Wow Casey, how’d you know what kind of tree that is?”. My go to answer would be “Because it LOOKS LIKE A MAPLE”. But now that I’m in this class being all scientific and stuff, I’ll give an actual answer. The red maple’s leaves are lobed, serrated, palmately compound, and arranged opposite of each other. A rather boring fact about red maples is that their wood is used to make veneer, paper, boxes…papery things. Now a not so fun fact about MY  own personal red maple. My dear maple is suffering from chlorosis, specifically, iron deficiency. A nice Boulder, CO tree company enlightened me as to what’ll happen if this tree doesn’t get pumped full of iron…yeahhh it’s gonna die. With chlorosis, the trees either can’t or can barely perform photosynthesis…no bueno.

Next up we’ve got…

Honey locust! (Gleditsia triacanthos)

The honey locust’s leaves are BIpinnately compound (pinnate x2), serrated, shaped in a simple manner, and are arranged alternately (I PROMISE they’re alternate, my picture is just…wrong. The tree is also covered in cute little seed pods, which make the tree be part of the family Fabaceae, aka the bean/legume/pea family. Now, this isn’t a very popular practice anymore, but many years ago, indigenous people would dry and grind up the pulp and seeds from the pods and use it as a sweetener. Yum?

American crabapple..? (Pyrus coronaria L.)

Ohhhhh man. This tree took FOREVER to identify. The leaf type is simple, and slightly toothed. The leaves are arranged alternately. The leaves of the American crabapple are usually lobed, but SOMETIMES are just normal leaf shaped with teeth. I was stumped until finding a diagram showing this on pg 310 of Petrides field guide. The fruit of this tree is used to make both preserves, and vinegar (Petrides pg 197)

Littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata)

The littleleaf linden features heart-shaped leaves that are lopsided at the base (see picture #2), with saw-toothed margins. The leaves are arranged alternately. The wood is relatively light and very soft, so it is used to make musical instruments, and for crafting. This type of tree won Tree of the Year in 2016! Woo! Unfortunately, my particular littleleaf linden will not be winning any beauty contests any time soon, as it is suffering from sooty mold, caused by some kind of insect infestation. 🙁

Chinese crab apple (Malus hupehensis)

This lovely invasive tree is native to, uh, China. Not sure why its here. The tree has simple leaves with serrated edges, with the leaves being arranged alternately. This crabapple tree also has – you guessed it – crabapples! They’re about half an inch in diameter, and pinkish yellow. The only use for this useless tree is using the leaves to make makeshift tea. At least this crabapple doesn’t drop fruit all over, unlike the American crabapple. As this tree is not native or common in our area, I had to use an outside source to figure out what it was.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)

While the flowering dogwood isn’t known for its leaves, the leaves are still pretty cool. They are simply shaped, and arranged opposite each other. The leaves of the flowering dogwood have specifically 5-6 pairs of veins. During the Civil War, the bark was made into a tea as a substitute for quinine, a malaria medication. Not sure how well that one worked. These days, dogwood wood is used for special expensive things like jewelry boxes.

American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

To be quite honest, I totally thought this was a maple tree at first. But then! I remembered the rule! Sycamore leaves grow alternately, while maple tree leaves grow oppositely. Therefore, since this tree has leaves arranged alternately, it’s gotta be a sycamore. In addition to being alternate, the leaves are simple and palmately compound, with big teeth. American sycamores are mainly used for furniture, and flooring.

Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides)

Last but most certainly not least, the eastern cottonwood. The cottonwood’s leaves are shaped sorta like big triangles, and have toothed edges. They grow alternately, and have a flat stem. During June/July, the cottonwood trees like to make themselves known by dumping white fluffy stuff everywhere, which makes everyone nearby sneeze. One of the eastern cottonwood’s ecological uses is erosion control. The huge strong roots (which are great at ruining sidewalks and roads if they grow underneath) are great at controlling erosion in waterways.


Now that was a lot of tree knowledge. Congrats if you made it this far, and I hope you at least learned a few new things about trees!