Monkey-faced scars on trees

Jeff Tome For The Audubon

I once took a workshop that evaluated children’s knowledge of nature based on how they drew trees. As their experience outside grew, their trees went from looking like green lollipops to developing rougher edges, some branches and then some animals in them. The drawings became more and more detailed as the children spent more and more time outside seeing what actual trees looked like.

I think many people retain that base lollipop version of trees in their heads. Trees are the backdrop to the landscape, but not often something people look at too closely. I feel like many people believe that forests are something to look at or hike through, not a place to pause and examine all the parts that make it up.

That has been me in the past. I’ve walked with people who stared at a tree for ten minutes that felt like ten hours as they puzzled out whether or not it was a Red Oak or a Black Oak. It didn’t interest me at the time and, frankly, might still not.

I am fortunate to work at the Audubon Community Nature Center, where there is an arboretum across the parking lot. An arboretum is a museum of trees. At Audubon, the trees in the arboretum are all found in Warren and Chautauqua counties. The man who founded it, Ted Grisez, went out into the wilds and gathered specimens from the region that he cared for tenderly until they could survive on their own. The arboretum was named the Grisez Arboretum in his honor.

It is an awesome place for a non-tree person to explore trees. The trees are neatly labeled on a winding path that goes past over 60 native trees that can be found in the wild. While many arboretums have trees from all over the world, the Grisez Arboretum focuses on the trees of this area. It’s amazing to see how many different trees can be found here.

This is a place I like to wander on cold winter days. This time of year has been dubbed the “stick season” by some for the way the trees look like dead sticks and the “naked tree season” by others who must feel like trees should keep their clothes on. Slowly, I am learning to recognize some of the trees in winter.

There are some trees that I can recognize from a distance. Tulip Poplar trees have brown tulip-like clusters at the ends of their branches. Cucumber Magnolia has what looks like three-inch long, lumpy, black turds hanging off the ends of their branches. Shagbark Hickory has distinctive bark that looks like someone is shredding it off. Sycamores have patch green, white and brown bark that peels off, making the tree look sick. Someone once told me to look at the sick-looking Sycamore, and the name has been stuck in my mind ever since.

Other trees hold on to their secrets a little bit better and can be identified by budding leaves. Beech trees, with their smooth gray bark and pointy brown leaf buds, are fairly easy to identify. Other things get tricky and, when talking to tree people, you start hearing a lot about monkeys.

That’s right, monkeys. It turns out that when leaves fall off the tree, they leave a scar behind where they were attached. One whole group of them is identified by the monkey-faced shape. It is not unusual to hear phrases like “Does that monkey have hairy eyebrows?”

Walnut and hickory trees tend to have monkey faces on their branches. I discovered that Butternut Hickory has a monkey-faced leaf scar with hairy eyebrows that some describe as a mustache on the head. Black Walnut has the “classic” monkey-faced leaf scar, with eyes and a smiling mouth. Shagbark Hickory looks like money with surprised eyebrows.

The “face” is actually made up of what they call vascular bundle scars. This is just a fancy way of saying that this is where the tubes that transport food and water through the tree connected to the leaf. Every tree has leaf scars that look a little bit different.

It’s hard to go from the lollipop version of childhood trees, with their cheery owl poking out of a hole, to looking at the monkey-faced leaf scars on the twigs of trees, but there is a lot of middle ground. Take a few minutes to stare at a tree today, any tree. Notice its bark. Look at the swelling leaf buds that are dreaming of warm weather to come. Check out the ends of the branches and look for little scars and shapes. Maybe you will see a monkey face, or an alien, or something else entirely. Let the tree capture your imagination and attention and see what happens.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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