My Review of Decurrent Trees

Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of plants to look at. Deciduous trees and shrubs become particularly interesting during the winter months with their exposed branches and their growth habits made more obvious. The beauty of a tree’s “skeletal” structure is revealed when it’s stripped of its leaves and set against a winter sky. Winter is also a great time to prune certain trees and shrubs (when appropriate), partly because their branches are so easily viewed and “problem” areas readily reveal themselves. Whether you’re observing a tree’s branching structure simply for enjoyment-sake or because you plan to prune, you may find yourself noticing distinct differences in the growth habits of trees. Distinct growth habits can help you identify trees. They can also tell you something about a tree’s environment or growing conditions.

In the book, The Tree, Colin Tudge defines a tree as “a big plant with a stick up the middle.” Sometimes this “stick” runs straight up from the ground to the top of the tree without interruption and is the tallest portion of the plant. Other times, the “stick” reaches a certain height and branches out into multiple “sticks,” each one reaching out in a different direction – some heading more outward, while others continue to reach for the sky. This is the difference between excurrent and decurrent growth.

excurrent growth habit: dawn redwood (Taxodium distichum)

A tree with an excurrent growth habit has one central leader – or single trunk – that reaches all the way to the top of the tree. Side branches occur along the length of the trunk and generally get shorter as they move up the tree, producing a pyramidal or conical shape. Think of a typical Christmas tree. Many conifers exhibit excurrent growth, as do several deciduous trees such as sweetgum and pin oak, as well as aspens and other poplars. When a tree divides part way up the trunk, splitting into several large branches – none of which could be considered the dominant branch – it is exhibiting a decurrent growth habit. Trees that generally fall into this category include elms, maples, oaks, and ashes. The growth habit of a tree is largely a result of its genetics, but plants are known for their plasticity, taking on a wide variety of forms depending on their parentage and their circumstances. Trying to identify a tree based only its growth habit, isn’t likely to yield great results.

decurrent growth habit: oak (Quercus sp.)

The environment that a plant is growing in can have noticeable effects on the form the plant takes. A tree growing up in a forest thick with other trees will typically grow straight up in search of sunlight and will branch out very little until it can get up high enough to do so. That same species of tree growing in an open field might instead branch out extensively at a much lower height, taking advantage of the generous amount of space to stretch its branches out wide. As Tudge puts it in The Tree, “one form for the forest, another for the open ground.” Additionally, things can happen in a tree’s life that will drastically alter its form. If, for example, a storm comes through and breaks off a tree’s central leader, several side branches might grow out and upward to take its place, giving an otherwise excurrent tree a decurrent form. The pruning that humans often do (sometimes unwisely) to trees and shrubs, particularly in urban settings, can also alter a plant’s natural growth habit considerably. These are important considerations to make when assessing the forms of trees.

decurrent growth habit: golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

I give decurrent growth habits five stars. No shade on excurrent trees. They’re also beautiful. But while trees with excurrent growth habits have otherwise predictable forms, decurrent trees are full of surprises. Their broad and rounded forms provided by their deliquescent branching structures are endlessly interesting, and their capacious canopies ensure that no two trees are alike.

decurrent growth habit: Malus sp. (I presume)

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Winter Trees and Shrubs: Kentucky Coffeetree

A few years ago, I was on the hunt for a Kentucky coffeetree. I was aware that a few could be found in some of the parks around Boise, but not being familiar with them, I wasn’t sure where exactly to find one or what I was even looking for. One winter while riding my bike to work, I noticed a tree at the edge of a golf course. No doubt I had passed this tree hundreds (if not thousands) of times. What caught my eye were thick, bean-like pods hanging from the ends of branches. They were unlike any other tree fruits I was familiar with. I stopped and, with a little effort, knocked one of the pods free from the tree. When I split it open, I found three or four large, smooth, black seeds inside. Later, I confirmed that the tree was indeed Kentucky coffeetree. Passing by it during any other time of year, it may have never caught my eye – just another deciduous tree with green leaves that, from a distance at least, looks like so many other deciduous trees. But in winter, with several chunky pods hanging from the tips of its stout branches, it really stood out. This is the joy of looking at trees and shrubs in the winter, where features that may otherwise be obscured, become glaringly obvious against the plainness of a winter backdrop.

fruits of Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is in the bean family (Fabaceae). It occurs in forests across the eastern and central United States and north into southern Ontario, Canada. It is also planted in urban areas both within and outside of its native range. It is a medium to large tree, averaging 60-70 feet (18-21 meters) high and 40-50 feet (12-15 meters) wide. It generally branches out at around 10-15 feet high and forms a narrow, rounded to pyramidal crown. It is a fairly sparsely branched tree compared to other trees its size, which is much easier to observe in the winter after all of its leaves have dropped.

winter twigs of Kentucky coffeetree

The winter twigs of Kentucky coffeetree are thick and stubby with few hairs and can be greenish, orange, brown, or deep wine-red in color. They have small, scattered lenticels that are either white, orange, or orange-brown. Their leaf scars are alternately arranged and are heart- or sheild-shaped and very large with 3 to 5 distinct bundle traces. It’s pretty obvious from the leaf scars that Kentucky coffeetree bears a sizeable leaf. These massive, bipinnately compound leaves are demonstrated in this Plant Sleuth YouTube video. Leaf buds are tiny and found directly above the leaf scar. There are usually two of them, one of which is sterile and can be difficult to see. They are round, hairy, olive-colored, and sunken like fuzzy, little craters, although you’ll need a hand lens to really see the hairs (which I highly recommend). The twigs lack a terminal leaf bud. Their pith is rounded, thick, and either orange, brown, or salmon colored. The young bark of Kentucky coffeetree is pale gray and fairly smooth. As the tree ages, it breaks into shallow ridges that run the length of the tree. At maturity, the bark is shades of grey and scaly with long, defined, narrow ridges.

pith of Kentucky coffeetree twigs

Kentucky coffeetree is dioecious, meaning that there are “male” trees and “female” trees. The tree that I found on the golf course was a “female” tree because it was bearing fruit, which the “males” and certain cultivars won’t have. If there are no seed pods present, you will have to rely on other features to identify the tree; however, when the pods are present, the tree is unmistakable. Its fruits are thick-walled, flat, oval-shaped, smooth, leathery, and orange-brown to black in color. They measure around 5 to 10 inches long and up to 4 inches wide. They are indehiscent and can persist on the tree for more than a year, and even those that fall to the ground can take months or years to break down enough to release the seeds, which have a hard, dark seed coat. Inside the pod, the seeds are embedded in a thick, gooey, yellow-green pulp, which some descriptions call sweet. However, it doesn’t look appetizing enough to try, and considering that the seeds are toxic, I’d be hesitant to consume any part of the fruit without first verifying its safety with a reputable source. That being said, the seeds can be roasted and used to make a coffee substitute and, as long as it’s done correctly, is safe to drink.

mature bark of Kentucky coffeetree

Kentucky coffeetree is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring and one of the first to drop its leaves in the fall. Flowers appear in mid to late spring. The leaves have a pink to bronze color as they first emerge, and in the fall they turn bright yellow before they drop.

fall foliage of Kentucky coffeetree

More Winter Trees and Shrubs:

Winter Interest in the Lower Boise Foothills

The Boise Foothills, a hilly landscape largely dominated by shrubs and grasses, are a picturesque setting any time of the year. They are particularly beautiful in the spring when a wide array of spring flowering plants are in bloom, and then again in late summer and early fall when a smaller selection of plants flower. But even when there aren’t flowers to see, plants and other features in the Foothills continue to offer interest. Their beauty may be more subtle and not as immediately striking as certain flowers can be, but they catch the eye nonetheless. Appeal can be found in things like gnarled, dead sagebrush branches, lichen covered rocks, and fading seed heads. Because the lower Boise Foothills in particular have endured a long history of plant introductions, an abundance of weeds and invasive plants residing among the natives also provide interest.

This winter has been another mild one. I was hoping for more snow, less rain, and deeper freezes. Mild, wet conditions make exploring the Foothills difficult and ill-advised. Rather than frozen and/or snow covered, the trails are thick with mud. Walking on them in this state is too destructive. Avoiding trails and walking instead on trail side vegetation is even more destructive, and so Foothills hiking is put on hold until the ground freezes or the trails dry out. This means I haven’t gotten into the Foothills as much as I would like. Still, I managed to get a few photos of some of the interesting things the lower Boise Foothills have to offer during the winter. What follows is a selection of those photos.

snow melting on the fruit of an introduced rose (Rosa sp.)

fading seed heads of hoary tansyaster (Machaeranthera canescens)

samaras of box elder (Acer negundo)

snow on seed heads of yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

gall on introduced rose (Rosa sp.)

sunflower seed heads (Helianthus annuus)

sunflower seed head in the snow (Helianthus annuus)

snow falling in the lower Boise Foothills

fading seed heads of salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

lichen on dead box elder log

seed head of curlycup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)

lichen and moss on rock in the snow

fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

See Also: Weeds and Wildflowers of the Boise Foothills (June 2015)

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The first issue of our new zine, Dispersal Stories, is available now. It’s an ode to traveling plants. You can find it in our Etsy Shop

Weeds and Winter Interest

In climates where winter sucks the garden inside itself and into quiet dormancy, it is often dead stalks and seed heads that provide the most visual interest. They also become, in some respects, a reminder of a garden that once was and what will be again.” — Gayla Trail, Grow Curious

If, like me, it is during the growing season that you really thrive, winters can be brutal. Color has practically been stripped from the landscape. Death and slumber abound. Nights are long and days are cold. It’s a lengthy wait until spring returns. Yet, my love of plants does not rest. And so, I look for beauty in a frozen landscape.

In evergreens, it is obvious. They maintain their color year-round. Large bunchgrasses, shrubs and trees with interesting bark or branching habits, dried fruits and unique seed heads – all of these things are easy to spot and visually interesting.

Beyond that, there are things that we are not accustomed to finding beauty in. Such things require a keen eye, close observation, and the cultivation of greater understanding and appreciation. For most people, weeds fall into this category. What is there to love or find beautiful?

I am of the opinion that there is plenty there to intrigue us. From their spent flowers to their seed heads and dried-up leaves, they can be just as interesting as the plants we deem more desirable. The winter-long green of winter annuals alone is evidence enough. So, here is my attempt to redeem some of these plants by nominating them as candidates for winter interest.

common mallow (Malva neglecta)

field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Russian thistle (Kali tragus, syn. Salsola tragus)

Russian thistle (Kali tragus, syn. Salsola tragus)

redstem filaree (Erodium cicutarium)

curly dock (Rumex crispus)

curly dock (Rumex crispus)

prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola)

salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

wood avens (Geum urbanum)

yellow evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)

annual honesty, a.k.a. money plant (Lunaria annua)

white clover (Trifolium repens)

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A friendly reminder: Refrain from being overly ambitious with your fall cleanup and, instead, leave certain plants in place. This not only provides winter interest but can also be beneficial to the wild creatures we share space with.

 

Drought Tolerant Plants: Water Conservation Landscape at Idaho Botanical Garden

Demonstration gardens are one of the best places to learn about drought tolerant plants that are appropriate for your region. Such gardens not only help you decide which species you should plant, but also show you what the plants look like at maturity, what they are doing at any given time of year, and how to organize them (or how not to organize them, depending on the quality of the garden) in an aesthetically pleasing way. A couple of years ago, I explored the Water Efficient Garden at the Idaho State Capitol Building. This year I visited the Water Conservation Landscape at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

The Water Conservation Landscape is planted on a large L-shaped berm on the edge of Idaho Botanical Garden’s property. It is the first thing that visitors to the garden see, before they reach the parking area and the front gate. It is nearly a decade old, so the majority of the plants are well established and in their prime. Because the garden is so visible, year-round interest is important. This imperative has been achieved thanks to thoughtful plant selection and design.

This demonstration garden came about thanks to a partnership between Idaho Botanical Garden and several other organizations, including the water company, sprinkler supply companies, and a landscape designer. An interpretive sign is installed at one end of the garden describing the benefits of using regionally appropriate plants to create beautiful drought tolerant landscapes. If you ever find yourself in the Boise area, this is a garden well worth your visit. In the meantime, here are a few photos as it appeared in 2017.

February 2017

bluebeard (Caryopteris incana ‘Jason’) – February 2017

Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood – March 2017

winter heath (Erica x darleyensis ‘Kramer’s Red’) – March 2017

May 2017

avens (Geum x hybrida ‘Totally Tangerine’) – May 2017

July 2017

American cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum ‘Wentworth’) – July 2017

Fremont’s evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii ‘Shimmer’) – July 2017

Fremont’s evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii ‘Shimmer’) – July 2017

August 2017

cheddar pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’) – August 2017

smoketree (Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’) – August 2017

gray lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) – September 2017

showy stonecrop (Hylotelephium telephium ‘Matrona’) – September 2017

showy stonecrop (Hylotelephium telephium ‘Matrona’) – September 2017

Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’) – October 2017

fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’) – October 2017

More Drought Tolerant Plant Posts: