Tree's wood is highly prized, causing illicit harvesting
Saturday, February 16, 2019
Although we’ve had some warm weather, it's still winter. But as a tease, paper-whites are opening up in the yard, and red maples are already showing their bright flowers. Fragrant Daphnes and a few withering winter-sweets are scattered around the neighborhood, and this afternoon we had a brilliant yellow crocus near the bird-bath. Here and there, the swelling bud of a daffodil.
This is about the time I start getting serious cabin-fever, and longing for the spring, which is still a good six or seven weeks off, I guess. Meanwhile, there's plenty of interesting botany. For instance, our taxonomy class is still studying winter twigs. You might not think that twigs are interesting, until you settle down and start examining them closely.
This is the twig of an eastern North American deciduous tree. It occurs naturally from southern Ontario west to Iowa, and then broadly distributed all the way to northern Florida, preferring rich woods and floodplains. The buds of the twig are a bit odd, in being "naked," or without prominent scales. The buds themselves are somewhat velvety and gray, equipped with lots of soft hairs.
Leaf scars, indicating where last year's leaf was attached to the twig, are three-lobed. Perhaps the most significant thing about this twig is that its inner pith, right in the middle, and revealed with a sharp knife (be careful!), is what we call "chambered," with a series of disk-like, spongy segments separated by discrete air chambers.
Otherwise, this is an easily identified tree. It has roughly checkered, dark bark. The trees are highly prized for their beautifully-grained wood, which is a somewhat "classic" source of fine veneer, cabinetry, and gunstocks, and which darkens somewhat as it ages.
The wood is so highly prized that there have been instances of illicit harvest, or "tree rustling," for it. The tree's foliage is strongly and pleasantly aromatic, and each leaf is compound, with 12-20 or so tear-shaped leaflets along the central, elongated midrib. Male flowers occur in elongated, scaly catkins in the spring, while the tiny female flowers occur in small clusters. Each developing fruit swells into a lemon-sized, nut-like structure, surrounded by a thick husk.
By the middle of the summer, the fruit may be up to 3" in diameter, with a hard, lime-green skin. The skin of the developing fruit is fragrant, yielding a marvelous lemony-spicy fragrance when scratched. By late autumn, the fruits will turn dark, nearly black, and then fall. Go ahead and gather a basketful … there is a delicious kernel inside, but available only after getting through the husk. Put your gloves on to do this, as the husk is capable of dark stains. The kernel resides within a hard shell, but that can be cracked open, and then the sweet, nutritious meat can be picked out.
(Answer: "Black walnut," Juglans nigra)
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.