Popkin’s Arboreal Editorial


Credit Zoe Keller

Economic value from trees is as old as mankind. Timber for homes and ships and all variety of implements. Nutritional value also: olives and their oil; figs; nuts. In the last year while in the forests of northwest Belize we were on the lookout for something new, something we had not yet known, something that would reveal new value within the forest; we had no clue what it might be. We were looking for the intersection between economic, nutritional and ecological value.

And finally a few months ago we came upon a nut that was new to us, and the trees it grows upon are particularly valuable from an ecosystem perspective. And an ethnobotanical perspective. So we are on the lookout for tree stories, especially those that overlap with themes we tend to in these pages–ecological, cultural and edible. We have linked to articles by Gabriel Popkin a couple of times previously, so we are not surprised by this editorial fitting our schema so well:

For several years, I’ve led tree walks in Washington, D.C. I start by asking participants who they are and why they want to spend precious hours looking at trees. My students are nearly all highly educated, successful people who work impressive jobs, speak multiple languages and effortlessly command sophisticated computers and phones. Yet most know barely the first thing about the trees around them. They want to change that.

There was a time when knowing your trees was a matter of life and death, because you needed to know which ones were strong enough to support a house and which ones would feed you through the winter. Now most of us walk around, to adapt a term devised by some botanists, tree blind.

But here’s the good news: Tree blindness can be cured. A few years ago, I knew two types of native trees, oak and maple. I considered all conifers to be pines. Then in 2012, I took an ecology course in Wisconsin in which we learned to identify 14 tree species — which, in the chilly upper Midwest, actually gets you pretty far. 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.

Now I live in the nation’s capital, where the milder climate and people’s propensity to plant species from elsewhere (Japanese cherries, anyone?) have given us more than 300 types of trees. Yet with just a few rules of thumb, it’s easy to start making sense of them, too. By noticing that branches grow opposite each other, rather than alternating back and forth on either side of a limb, you can narrow a tree down to maple, ash, dogwood or a handful of introduced varieties. From there the leaf shape gives away at least the genus, if not the species.

Just naming trees might sound a bit like a parlor trick to impress your friends. But it’s also a way to start paying attention. Then you notice more interesting things. Trees put on one of nature’s great sex shows. Each spring they break their winter dormancy with a burst of genitalia, also known as flowers. Some, including the famous cherries, are insect-luring exhibitionists; others, such as the oaks, are more coy, relying on the wind to help consummate the mating act. Take a moment to watch and listen to a flowering redbud tree full of pollen-drunk bumblebees. I promise you won’t be bored…

Read the whole editorial here.

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