A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast

A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast

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The same thought came up frequently as I read Mark Mikolas’s A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast: I wish I had had this book when I was first learning to identify trees. Unlike the encyclopedic field guides that often overwhelm novices and sometimes even experienced amateur naturalists, Mikolas’s book provides a fresh approach that is sure to engage anyone who wants to get to know trees. While our traditional tree guides fill an important need, this one fills a niche that they don’t.

The first suggestion that this is a different kind of field guide comes in the title, when Mikolas lets us know the emphasis is on recognizing trees, rather than identifying them. Yes, he provides plenty of information about how to identify trees and that is essentially what he has us doing, but he really wants us to get to know the most common species, one by one, so that we can recognize them anywhere. He notes that the first 12 deciduous trees in the book comprise 95 percent of the deciduous trees in the Northeast, and that eight conifers later in the book comprise almost 100 percent of the conifers in the region. What a gratifying way to build confidence in anyone who wants to know trees. If you focus on those 20 very common trees, when it comes to knowing trees along the trail, you can become the shining star on almost any group hike.

Spending a few pages on each tree, Mikolas emphasizes what is important and different about that species. All the info is in one place; you don’t go to one page for the description and details, another for the leaf key, another for a photo of the flower, and another for a photo of the fruit. Not only is everything conveniently together, each section comes with abundant photos. Each individual tree is unique, so no single photo can capture the range of what the bark may look like in different situations or lighting. And like people, trees age; for example, four photos of the bark of the black birch show how it dramatically evolves over the years, something no single photograph could ever capture. He spends a lot of time on bark, which makes this guide usable in any season. Mikolas writes about 40 trees in all. In his introduction, he includes a bit of a disclaimer, noting that he avoids “fine distinctions” and doesn’t provide all the detailed information and scientific terminology that a botanist or dendrologist might look for. This is intended as a layman’s introduction to trees, not a doctoral thesis.

Mikolas begins the book with 5 pages and 16 photos about the red maple, the most common and widely distributed deciduous tree in the eastern United States. My favorite traditional field guide to trees of the eastern US is over 700 pages long and describes 364 trees. Yet it devotes just one page of text to the red maple and includes five photos at five other locations in the book. It is detailed and scientific, but far more formal and in some ways not as helpful. For example, it doesn’t mention the common “bull’s-eye in the bark” that can often confirm the red maple’s identity. Plus, it is buried among 10 other maple trees, with no special recognition of its Number 1 ranking.

“Red maple,” Mikolas writes, “is called red because its twigs, buds and flowers are all red, and its leaves turn a flaming red in the fall – in fact, its leaves are among the earliest in the fall to start turning.”

Each chapter begins similarly, with a statement designed to engage the reader: “Beech can live for up to 400 years.” “There are more than 150 different kinds of oaks in North America…” “The hemlock juice that Socrates drank is not from the hemlock tree.”

We still need our traditional field guides to trees, but many people would do well to start with this attractive, very approachable book. A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast is sure to become popular in nature centers and science classrooms throughout the 13 states it addresses.

Tom McKone