Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Case of Mistaken Identity

What is this tree?

 The following is a cautionary tale. Don't let this happen to you.  When I first started caring for this property, I was asked "What kind of tree is this big shade tree?"  Rather than taking the time to take some pictures and samples and study the tree in detail, comparing it to tree ID dichotomous keys in my books at home and online; I made the capital mistake of saying the first tree name that popped into my head that roughly fit the description of what I was looking at. 

Actual Ash Trees

I said it was an Ash tree, but wasn't sure which one yet.  I've never been quite able to make up my mind which ash it was as it seemed to fit the general idea of one, but not exactly of any specific species of ash.  While trying to key out another plant that has been popping up in the yard recently, I was diligently studying this new 'weed' (as I should have done with the big shade tree) and was comparing it to samples and pictures of the tree as well as those in other yards in the neighborhood.  It occurred to me suddenly that my 'Ash' tree couldn't be of the Fraxinus genus because it didn't consistently show certain key characteristics.  Yes, it has a lot of opposite branches and frequently produces new branches in nearly matched pairs, but the leaves are actually simple (not compound) and are always produced in an alternate fashion rather than opposite.  I should have known better, since ash trees have compound leaves (that look a lot like individual leaves until you look closely at the pedicels of each leaflet for the buds - which you won't find if they are actually leaflets). 

Each leaf has buds and is produces alternately along the stem. These aren't compound leaves. You can see the frequent matched pairing of branches though which had me fooled into thinking this tree had opposite branches.

I fell for the very Ash-like trunk covered with ash-grey bark and the serrated leaves that seem to be oppositely branched a first glance without studying it closely enough.  The big kicker out of the Fraxinus genera and into the Ulmus though was the leaf bases.  They are very frequently asymmetrical with one side wider and longer than the other.  Ash leaflets have symmetrical bases. 

Note how the leaves seem to be attached crookedly to the stem. They aren't symmetrical like most leaves are.

I felt like a first rate idiot, but in my defense, in the year and half since I've known this tree, I've never seen it bloom nor produce any sort of reproductive structure.  Flowers and seeds are the very best ways to identify plants and are dead give-aways when you finally see them.  Had I seen the distinctive small-winged single seed pods (called 'samara' by botanists) of the Ulmus genera on the tree or scattered below it, I would have known right away that it was an Elm of some sort. 

If only I had seen some seeds! Then it's relatively easy. The seed labeled (e) is Elm while the one labeled (i) is and Ash seed. Can you guess which ones the rest are? A hint is that there are seeds of Fir, Birch, Pine, Sycamore, Maple and Lime Hornbeam in there.

Then, I tried to narrow down which of the many elms it is. That proved difficult as it seemed to have characteristics of several elm species.  That led me to consider that it might be some sort of hybrid, so I looked up elm hybrids and crosses.  I can't be 100% sure, but I am currently leaning toward it being a Sapporo Autumn Gold Elm Ulmus pumilia x Ulmus davidiana var. japonica.  It's a hybrid that was developed at the University of Wisconsin by Eugene Smalley from Siberian and Japanese Elms and has been recommended and planted across the U.S. since the 1980's for its resistance to Dutch Elm Disease, Verticilium Wilt and its drought and high pH tolerance. The drought and high pH tolerance is probably why the first owners of this yard planted it. 
Example of an unpruned Sapporo Autumn Gold from Wikipedia

It is never easy to admit when you are wrong, particularly when you are wrong about something in your own field, but professional integrity and my sense of moral honesty finally won out over the instinct of personal pride and I told my client of my mistake.  We are all human and we all make mistakes. 

Intelligence is what you gain by studying, wisdom is what you gain when you attempt to apply what you have studied.

P.S., I'm still trying to figure out what the other 'mystery plant' is and am doing another wise thing, asking for help from my peers (and in some cases, betters).  Perhaps you know what it is. If so, please comment to this blog post.

The leaves feel dry and papery and are not resinous nor glossy. There must be a coating of very fine 'hairs' on the surface of the leaves as they feel slightly rough when you rub them in a direction towards the leaf base.  They are essentially odorless except for the 'cut grass' smell you get when you crush the leaves.  The stem on the oldest ones (about two months old now) is turning brown and woody suggesting that they might be perennials. I see no sign of flower buds on any of the oldest plants too.

It is growing all over the place where it can get water and shade
This is a roughly two month old plant.
If you see this plant and know its identity, contact us right away.

(This photo looks a bit like a mug shot of a suspect doesn't it?)

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