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It’s in your nature: Judging trees by their ‘cover’

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    Look for the papery, peeling bark of the paper birch near streams or river banks. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    Shagbark hickory has a unique peeling bark. Look for them often near old farms, roadsides and field edges. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    Sycamore trunks have a unique quilted type of bark pattern. Look for them along city streets or natively growing along streams and rivers. The bark will be quite noticeable now that the leaves have fallen.

Published November 10. 2018 06:13AM


“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

While that certainly may be true, you can identify almost all trees by their “cover” — their bark of course.

A summer walk or hike through the forest and you are surrounded by many tree species all adorned with their identifying leaves. Almost anyone, with a field guide in hand, correctly identifies the tree by keying in a leaf. But I think with a little more time afield, a winter hike through now bare deciduous trees, you can still identify them. The tree’s bark is characteristic as well, and you can still identify it by a look at its trunk.

Most of you haven’t spent as much time outdoors as I have, nor had a father who quizzed you on every fishing, hunting or outdoor foray. The “time on task” of reviewing trees over and over again helped me to be so familiar with them.

Some trunks you may already know, but here goes. White birch, which is planted as an ornamental, has a white bark covering. However, this is a species introduced here from Europe. The “white birch” that you commonly see growing on the culm banks of the Panther Valley or in fields reverting to forest, is actually a gray birch. It does have a “whitish” bark, but not as brilliant as the ornamentals in your lawns.

A close relative, easily identified by its bark, is the paper birch. The outer bark of the paper birch peels off in thin, papery layers. Look for them near stream banks or on your walk along the Lehigh Canal.

Common around the old farmsteads is an easily identified tree, the shagbark hickory. A mature shagbark looks like its trunk has had a “bad hair day.” Its outer bark peels upward and downward in 1- or 2-inch-wide strips, sometimes peeling 3 inches or more from the trunk. It can be easily identified without its leaves.

Sycamore trees, naturally growing near water courses, are commonly planted as a part of city streetside beautifications. (Allentown has many sycamore-lined streets) It has a characteristic trunk of a light tan background with green blotches. Look for it in winter towering along many major rivers, and it can be identified even as you drive by them.

American beech has a beautiful smooth gray trunk. Normally as a tree keeps maturing, its bark splits and furrows. The beech tree however has a uniquely smooth trunk, even on a 60-year-old specimen. It is more commonly found in the Pocono Plateau area (Hickory Run State Park for example) and their trunks can reveal some history. Bears, which commonly climb them to get to the beechnuts, leave their claw marks etched into the trunks. The trunk is so smooth, these claw marks are still quite evident even 15 years later. I found a message from a hunter on a beech tree trunk, “shot buck here, 12/64.” I could still read it in the early ’90s.

Some tree names are a bit misleading. A white oak doesn’t have white bark. However, old-timers who hunted a local region of this county referred to as the “white oaks” can testify that the white oak trunk is certainly a very light gray and easily identified among the other oak species there.

I’m not trying to turn you into a forester, but keep those nature eyes open, knowing that you can “Judge a tree by its cover.”

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Which of these eats plants? A. muskrat B. river otter C. fisher D. mink

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Fox and some other cold winter animals have black-edged extremities to help absorb as much warming sunlight as possible to stave off frostbite.

Contact Barry Reed at



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