Avoid Tree Blindness With Wendy Willard
“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.” Gabriel Popkin
FOW Trail Ambassador and Crew Leader Wendy Willard believes knowing more about trees can be an effective entry point for becoming more connected to the natural world and reducing “tree blindness.” A horticulturist and landscape designer at Hort.Landscape, Willard sat down with FOW recently to talk trees. Read highlights from our conversation below and register here for her next tree walk “Name That Naked Tree” on November 19! (This is a great hike for children 8 years and older with a responsible adult.)
Why have you scheduled “Name Than Naked Tree” in late November?
Because what happens in the summer and the spring, and usually in the early fall, is that the trees are covered with leaves. You can’t see the structure and you can’t see which leaves belong to which tree. . . . So, when you’re doing it in the fall, without the leaves—“naked trees”—then you can really have an idea of structure, you can look at the bark and the fruits, which you normally don’t see, and all of these little details that make it easier to tell which tree is which. . . . They’re not specimen trees in the middle of nowhere. These are big, old trees in the middle of the woods, so the only way most of us can identify them is without the leaves.
What can people expect when they go on this hike with you?
I first start with an introduction, ask why people are joining this hike. Then we cover the basics: the opposite and alternate branching, which helps you identify at least three types of trees: maple, ash, and dogwood, which all have opposite branching, opposite leaves.
I also hand out a sheet that I’ve made up of very specific fruits, barks, structure types, and location spots—some are upland and some are lowland. Then, we walk. We go up above The Cedars House, zigzag back and forth, walk along the ridge, come down near Bells Mill Road, and come back along Forbidden Drive. We stop at individual trees and look at the bark, then we look up and around and compare. I think most people when they leave probably have a good acquaintance with twelve big trees. So they can come out to the woods and say, “Look at that ash over there!”
Why do you think it is important for the average person to be able to identify trees?
Very often we take trees for granted. Do you know the trees in your own backyard? Down your street? In the Wissahickon? A lot of us don’t. We just don’t pay attention. And it’s a loss in our knowledge base that we don’t. They’re all around us and they’re HUGE. I think learning to identify trees is a good way to connect with the Wissahickon. A lot of people run through the Wissahickon or bike through it and they just don’t notice the trees. You don’t have to learn them all, but if you have a grasp of just a few of them, then you can appreciate the woods so much more.
How did you learn about trees?
I earned a landscape design certificate at the Morris Arboretum and then I completed the three-year Horticulture Certificate program at The Barnes Arboretum. But I’ve always been a tree hugger. I live in the middle of the woods. and I’ve always been interested in trees. The nice thing about them is that they don’t move. Birds keep moving, so I don’t have patience with them. They don’t stay still. Trees, you can just go up to them and feel the bark, pick up the nuts, and look at the leaves. You can really spend some time with them. And the nice thing about the Wissahickon is that you can really spend time looking at an individual tree and people don’t think you’re crazy. It really is the perfect place to study trees.
Do you have a favorite?
I’d have to say the oak.
They are just so majestic and there are so many types of them. I even have a dog named Quercus, which is the botanical name for oak. I adore them. There is nothing more stunning than a full grown oak. The structure of it and the leaves. If you look at all the different acorns, you will realize there are many sizes, shapes, and varieties of them.
by Denise Larrabee, Editor/Writer at FOW