Knowledge Base + Trust Your Instincts
Several years ago, I was on a half-hearted quest to identify a tree I was seeing around the area.
I would most often see this tree along property lines or on corners at major intersections:
- Medium to large size deciduous tree, 12″ to 48″ diameter at its base
- The lower bark resembled the Cottonwood’s thick, ‘chunky’ bark
- The bark of the upper tree more-closely resembled that of the Aspen
- The leaves were ‘toothed’, meaning jagged and were light in color, almost silver beneath, and green above
The tree bore those similarities to the Populus genus (which includes the Cottonwoods, Poplars, and Aspens) noted above, but it didn’t fit into my mental “encyclopedia of trees on the Colorado Plains”. It was a curious, but unpressing, mystery.
I would ask around, occasionally, when I saw one of these trees while with another person. (Admittedly, not the best way to learn plant knowledge.) “Do you know what tree that is?” But none of the responses I got seemed quite right. One such response, from an overly-confident, under-informed individual, was that the tree was clearly a Maple. I protested that I thought that it was not a Maple, but was talked-over and decided it better to keep my mouth shut because the conversation was going nowhere.
The finely-toothed leaves, did have 3 primary lobes the way Maples can (usually 5). But here’s the detail that told me there was no way in Colorado (or on earth) that this tree was a member of the Maple family:
- All Maples grow with opposite-branching leaves/buds/branches (meaning that where one bud/branch sprouts, there is one at the same location on the opposite side of the main branch/stem)
- The tree I was looking at was alternate-branching (where one branch protrudes, the next branch sprouts further up the branch, alternating back and forth)
“But,” you might ask “isn’t it possible that some member of the Maple family is alternate-branching?”
No. I’m afraid not. Trees (and the entire organization of taxonomy) are grouped according to similarities. The further back (or ‘higher’) in the taxonomic classification system, the more broadly the net is cast. By the time we get ‘down’ to the Family and Genus levels, organisms contained within them are fairly similar. So by the time we get to the Maple Family/Genus levels (Aceraceae/Acer, respectively) every species contained within those groups include concretely-defined, similar traits…often called patterns. (This is why I prefer a patterns-method of botanical study, popularized by Tom Elpel.) So every Maple, worldwide (128 species), is opposite-branching. Period.
You may also be interested in our article ‘How to Identify Edible Plants – An Introduction‘:
You’ve Got it M.A.D.E.
The cool thing is, very few species of trees are opposite-branching, as-is the Maple. In fact, when it comes to tree species native to North America, there are only FOUR genera (plural of genus) that are opposite-branching. And you can remember them with the acronym: M.A.D.E. With common genus names, Latin names, and several common name examples they are:
- Maple (Acer sp.) – Rocky Mountain Maple, Sugar Maple, Silver Maple
- Ash (Fraxinus sp.) – White Ash, Green Ash, Black Ash
- Dogwood (Cornus sp.) – Flowering Dogwood, Pacific Dogwood, Common Dogwood
- Elder (also Acer genus) – Box Elder
So as you’re exploring the woods of the wild, or the trees around town, pay attention to the branching patterns. When you see one that branches oppositely, you can drastically narrow down your choices when it comes to identification. Alternatively, when you find a tree that is alternate-branching (as with my Mystery Tree), you can instantly eliminate anything that is M.A.D.E. and say with all confidence “No, it’s actually not a Maple.”
Alright Sherlock, what about your Mystery Tree?
Fair enough. Two Springs ago, the six large Cottonwoods in the drainage behind Gone Feral’s office died due to a combination of dryness and late-season freeze. Dead. On the spot.
(Interesting fact: Cottonwoods (and related species) are water-loving and fast-growing. Annual growth rings can easily be 1″ wide, so it’s not unusual for a 30″ tree to only be 18-20 years old.)
Eventually an arborist showed up to take them down. Being the opportunist that I am, I walked out to chat (and see what I might be able to procure…which ended up being two 12-foot, 30″ Cottonwood logs).
In the midst of conversation, I mentioned this tree I’d been seeing…alternate branching, Cottonwood bark down low, Aspen bark up top…
“Oh yeah,” he said without skipping a beat, “that’s a Silver Poplar.”
Poplar. Genus Populus. Which includes the Cottonwoods, Aspens, and other Poplars.
Build your knowledge base. And then trust your instincts.
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