It happens all the time, people call me and tell me about trees that are so big that they can’t get their arms around them and, unrelated but still slightly humorous, they tell me about their Chinese Elms. For the record, I have seen many trees that you can’t get your arms around (which doesn’t make that nutty measuring system any less ambiguous), but the Chinese Elms that I hear about have never, ever, ever, not once, actually been Chinese Elms – they have always been Siberian Elms.
I have gotten used to it now. If someone says they have a Chinese Elm, I just assume that it is a Siberian Elm. It isn’t that big of a deal, except that there really is a Chinese Elm and I often wonder if the next call about a Chinese Elm will, in fact, yield a Chinese Elm. I like both American Elm and Siberian Elm and assume that I would like Chinese Elm as well, and I don’t want to miss my chance to mill one if it ever comes along.
The elm issue moved to the forefront after a recent trip to the Missouri Botanical Gardens when I ran across an actual Chinese Elm conveniently marked with a little official sign. I have never seen one in real life, at least that I know of, and this was a great opportunity for a close-up view of a confirmed Chinese elm tree. I took that opportunity to snap some photos for comparison. Nonetheless, just assume that your Chinese elm is actually a Siberian elm, unless it looks a lot like the photos below.
Two weekends ago we were looking for some local entertainment and ended up taking a little trip to the Missouri Botanical Gardens. It is on our short list of great St. Louis attractions, and even though it isn’t free like the zoo, the science center, or the art museum, we go there at least once a year. We live in St. Charles now, which is just outside of St. Louis County, so we don’t get a reduced rate or free days like we did when we lived in Hazelwood, but it doesn’t matter. It is well worth the full price of $8 for adults. Children under 12 are free, but the Children’s Garden will add $5 to the bill. Still, for about twenty bucks, it is well worth it.
As soon as I walk through the main building I feel a little lighter and happier, like the worries of the world have just vanished. It feels right. It is so nice and clean and Disneyesque. I can’t help but think that someone needs to build a hotel next to the gardens to capitalize on what they have going. Of course, I’m biased though. I love the outdoors, plants, gardens, and trees.
As soon as you walk out of the main building and head down the path to the right, you are greeted by large trees. I noticed Tulip Poplars and a big Sycamore right away, but they are mixed in with every tree you can think of. The beauty is that they are big, they are old, and they are labeled (by people who I trust).
The trees are set among themed gardens and are usually together in a small group or grove. The Children’s Garden, which is an excellent recent addition, is built in and around a grove of Osage Orange trees like you have never seen. Usually these trees are bushy, with short crooked trunks. Sometimes, they are called “hedge apple” or just “hedge” for short, because they will form a fence-like impenetrable barrier. They are rarely trees that you would look at and say “I could make some good lumber out of that”, but these are a different story. One, in particular, that I photographed is 36″ in diameter at 8′ from the ground and has 16′ or more of good trunk. “Unbelievable!” I say.
Throughout the park the story is the same. Big trees mixed in with beautiful gardens are a constant, except of course, in the Japanese Garden, where everything is more petite. Back by the English Garden are the biggest trees; Ash, White oak, and a record Basswood.
One group that stood out during our visit was the Black Gums or Tupelo. Three smaller trees hung over the path and were buzzing with the sound of thousands of bees. I have heard about Tupelo Honey and I got a chance to hear it being made (the girls were not as excited as me to be under those trees). There were a few beehives a short distance away, and you could smell the honey in the air.
As always, we didn’t see everything because the park is so big, but we got to fly through most of it in a couple of hours. If you really wanted to take in everything there, it would take a full day, and I am sure you would still miss something. Even so, I highly recommend that you visit this world-class park. You will not be disappointed.
Here are some other photos of the park for your enjoyment (click on any photo to view the slide show):
I like big trees, and I like American Elms. When we stopped by Jaycee Park in St. Charles, MO, I found both all rolled into one. We went to that particular park so Mira, my daughter, could check out the newly renovated playground (which is very nice by the way). Mira played while Chris and I held down a bench and talked, but I couldn’t stop looking at the tree on the top of the hill. I kept wondering if it was time to go yet, so I could get a closer look and take a few photos.
When it was time to go, the girls humored me and let me take pictures of the American Elm tree. I asked them to stand in the photos for scale and they actually did it. Most shocking was Mira, who seemed to not totally hate the experience. She was even a touch cocky, putting her leg up on a straw bale, while Chris was only the slightest bit annoyed (she gets forced to look at a lot of trees).
As I said, this tree is large, which is a noteworthy feat for a tree that usually succumbs to Dutch Elm disease at a much younger age. It shows no sign of the disease (knock on my head) and seems to be in great health. You can tell from the close-up photo of the base that it gets a lot of visitors who admire it as much as I do.
Besides having a large base, the crown is enormous. Click on one of the photos to get close-up and try counting the branches. There must be at least a billion of them up there (give or take a few). They spread out like a fan in all directions and leave very little open air. I am sure that in the summer it just looks like a big bush.
The way the branches spread from the main trunk is the best way to identify American Elms, especially without the leaves. The tree usually has a vase or fan shape to it, where a short to medium length and wide base separates from one area into many branches with no clear lead. The profile of the tree sometimes shows the lower branches with an upward turn at the ends, which makes the vase shape even more evident. This American Elm is so old that it has added some extra lower branches which are not strongly turned up. Still, even from a great distance, you can tell it is an American Elm.
I know a lot of you are wondering how old this tree is, and I can tell you that I don’t know (I am not afraid to admit it). My best guess would be about 150 years old based on the other trees I have milled. Let’s just say it is between 100 and 200 to be safe and definitely much older than me.
After I took the photos above, I thought it would be a good idea to post photos of other American Elms to show the consistency of the shape from tree to tree. Some of them have a long main trunk before the branches split off and some have almost no main trunk. One even has two trunks, but still shows the vase shape overall. Notice that none of them are near the size of the American Elm at Jaycee Park.
I drive by this tree often, and I have always admired it. For years, I thought that I would take some artsy photos of it and hang them on my wall. I wasn’t sure how to handle the houses in the background (besides photoshop), so I never did it. The other day it was very foggy in the morning, which made the day seem more like England than Missouri, and it just felt like it was time to take some photos. The fog was getting thinner when I started shooting and what was there really added nothing to the event, but I went ahead anyway. I expect I will be back again under different lighting conditions and maybe at different times of the year.
This white oak is right next to a large four-lane road in a back yard. It is easy to see, but not super obvious,since it is in a small opening with trees on both sides. My attention was first attracted by the shape of the base, which is unusually tapered, especially for a white oak. White oaks get big, but they usually have much less taper in the base. Trees that grow in the woods specifically, are much more consistent in diameter, while his one, which grew in the open, flares out like crazy. It is such an unusual shape that I had to drive by several times before I agreed with myself that it was a white oak. This is an old tree, and I think that wide base has served it well.
While the base is uncharacteristically white oak, the top is textbook. The branches are big and crooked and there aren’t a lot of them. It looks creepy, like it should be in front of a haunted house (where any self-respecting white oak would be found). I can’t help but feel like the tree is just going to reach out and grab me.
While I usually picture myself cutting down trees or making them into lumber or a project, this one I only envision standing. I look at it, and besides the fact that I wouldn’t know where to start, I just don’t see cutting it up. I think about moving it to my backyard, so I can build a treehouse on that giant first branch. Then, I think about getting a new house with a bigger back yard, so it will actually fit. After I settle in to my new house I would put up a swing on the other low branch. Then, of course, I would enjoy a fresh pot of honey from the happy little beehive that resides in the nubby almost-healed-over branch right outside the tree house (directly above my head in the photo below).
And, after I finished my pot of honey, I would think to myself, “This is the most awesomest treehouse tree ever!” (even if it has houses in the background and isn’t in my yard).
Sassafras is one my favorite trees. It smells good, makes good lumber and stands out in a crowd. It only falls short on my overall checklist because it doesn’t produce a fruit that we would normally eat, but it is used for flavoring root beer, which kicks it back up near the top.
This time of year (early fall) is when the sassafras really starts to shine. It is one of the first trees to start turning and has few rivals in the color department. Most of the trees around St. Louis are still green, but the sassafras is bright red. The leaves are often a mix of vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows, similar to the fall colors of sugar maples.
Sassafras is the ideal tree for a school leaf project because it has three leaf shapes. Everyone will be astonished and amazed when you show them first the football-shaped leaf, then pull out the mitten-shaped leaf, and finally, unveil the three-lobed leaf – all from the same tree (you might want to end with the mitten, it’s the cutest).
After you dazzle the audience with the leaf shapes, be sure to grind up the leaves in your hand and let everyone get a good smell. No other tree is as fragrant as sassafras. The lemony-fresh scent will have them lining up to buy Murphy’s oil soap and clean your kitchen. And, if you aren’t sure if it’s a sassafras, just smell it, even a blind person can tell if it’s sassafras.
If you go hunting for sassafras leaves look along property edges, where this normally wiry tree hangs out in clusters and new trees sprout up from the roots of others. They are usually small and crooked, reaching wherever possible to get to the light, but occasionally they are big and straight.
When it comes time to harvest a sassafras and turn it into lumber, get ready. If you thought the leaves smelled, just wait until you have a nose full of sassafras sawdust. That scent will linger in your head for days, but it will remind you that you have some of the best-working wood in your hands. This soft hardwood dries flat, is lightweight and works like butter. The wood itself isn’t too showy and looks like a green-tinted ash when fresh cut. But, after a little time, the green turns to a rich, medium brown and looks like no other.
If you have a photograph of a piece that you have built out of sassafras, please let me know, so I can share it with others (I promise not to take all of the credit).