Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

The Life of Trees August 11, 2010

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Look up! What do you see?

I was exploring my neighborhood today in search of some backyard wildlife when I walked under an oak tree planted by the sidewalk. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a riot of acorns growing heavy on the branches. I walked underneath the tree to get a glimpse of what I thought of as the “squirrel’s eye view.”

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Acorns are interesting because they contain something called tannin. Tannins are chemicals that makes things bitter to the taste, and in many cases are used by plants as a defense against getting eaten by animals. Pine needles, for example, have high levels of tannin, which is one of the reasons why you don’t see them eaten as often by deer as their broad-leaf counterparts. The tannins in acorns are harmful to certain animals, including humans. Some Native American tribes used to let acorns soak in water to remove the tannins before grinding them up into flour. There have also been deaths of cattle reported during times when there are a lot of acorns on the ground, due to them getting too much tannin in their bodies.

Some animals, however, have adapted to these higher chemical levels, either physiologically or by changing their behavior. Bears and some insects seem to be able to handle consuming high levels of tannin. Squirrels might be able to as well, although some think that squirrels and blue jays that cache acorns might wait for ground water to remove the tannins before they eat them.

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I love cases of coevolution like this, or when two or more species change in relation to each other. Acorns are too heavy to be dispersed by wind, so one of the main ways acorns move around is by squirrels and blue jays storing up caches of the seeds to eat later. The animals can remember where most of their stores are kept, but some inevitably get lost either by accident or as the animals take their secrets to their grave. This allows the “baby” oak trees to grow in a new location where they are not competing with their parent tree for sunlight, food, water, and nutrients. The interesting thing is that in order for this to happen the acorn has to be just the right size—big enough to have a hearty supply of food for the animal, but small enough that it can carry it around in its jaws. Basically, the beak or cheek sizes of the blue jay and squirrel, determine how big an acorn can be!!

I encourage everyone to hold an acorn in their hand the next time they see one and think about this amazing fact–what you are holding is the perfect shape, size, and weight for a squirrel’s mouth or a blue jay’s beak. Think of everything that went in to that process! Larger acorns getting left behind and losing the genetic race because they were too cumbersome for birds long gone, a squirrel–how long ago?–that could carry more acorns in its cheeks surviving longer, reproducing more, and passing those traits on to its offspring. It’s a wonderful thing to think about!

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After finding the acorns I decided to see what else was growing in the trees around me. I noticed these spiky fruits growing in a tree nearby. I am not always great at tree identification–something I would like to work on–but luckily have the magic of the internet, where you can type in almost anything and find someone else who has already searched for it. After a quick search for the very technical term “tree with spiky ball seeds,” I learned these pokey fruits belong to the Sweet Gum tree. Apparently these fruits are also called “space bugs” and “conkleberries!”

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A bit further on I found some more acorns, but noticed that this tree only had a few grouped together, as opposed to the giant clumps in the first one. I am guessing this is a different type of oak tree, but unfortunately do not know quite enough myself to make the distinction. If anyone has any ideas about the difference between these two, please e-mail me at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com!

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A bit later still I saw this black walnut tree with fruits. If you have not smelled a black walnut before, I recommend you to do so the next time you see one! They have a very specific smell, one that I still associate with my Nana’s (grandmother’s) backyard from when I was a child. I still remember clearly the way they start to fall apart after rotting on the ground awhile and the way your hands smell after holding them.

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Finally, I started looking at the way light looks coming through a cluster of leaves. It is always beautiful to me, the way leaves overlap and change color with the light. I encourage everyone to spend a few minutes–even seconds–looking for this the next time they are walking down the street, or even from their house to their car. If you have the time, laying under a tree and looking up is even better!

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I like the leaves of this tree because they look like what you would draw if you were making a cartoon version of a tree. Their round edges are sort of comical, don’t you think?

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Trees are a wonderful thing to explore, especially in a backyard habitat. Even in urban areas you can usually find a tree planted every so often, and even if it is straining against concrete it still has a great story to tell! So take a look at your tree neighbors! Are they all the same type? What’s different about them? Do they have fruits or flowers blooming right now? Is it changing color? What can you learn about it that you didn’t know yesterday? I would love to hear about what you find! I hope you enjoy the exploration as much as I did, and as always, I’ll see you out there!

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5 Responses to “The Life of Trees”

  1. Debi Says:

    I love trees — and now I’m sharing that love with my kids. Trees are one thing you can find even in the most urban of areas to connect you instantly with the natural world. Thanks for sharing such wonderful ways to explore backyard trees.

  2. Beautiful!!! I love this post. I am a big tree hugger. The large Silver Birch trees in our back garden were my favorite play thing as a child. I would spend hours up the trees imagining all sorts of magical adventures. I now have a tree deck which allows me to be a kid again. Trees are vital for our existence on this planet so it’s incredibly important for children to learn about trees. I love to make the learning fun by incorporating lot’s of cool nature crafts in My Little Humbug nature workshops.
    The Oak is a big favourite-have you read the marvelous book ” The Man who planted trees” by Jean Giono….beautiful!!!
    Thanks for sharing such a lovely post.

    • I haven’t read that book before–I will have to get it! The tree deck sounds awesome, do you have any pictures? Thanks for writing about your childhood adventures. I did a nature writing activity with some 4th graders where they were supposed to write about their favorite outdoor place, and many of them wrote about a certain tree in their yard or neighborhood! I’m glad to see that the joy of trees is being passed on to the next generations.

  3. […] roam as usual to see what there was to see. I noticed the same acorns I took pictures of for an earlier post and the way some leaves had turned brown on the branch of an otherwise green tree. These […]


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