Monday, August 01, 2011

Discovering a "New" Tree Species

I have lived in Kansas, off and on, for many years. I know there is a wide variety of exotic species of trees that have been brought in for landscaping; some of those species have escaped into the wild where they might throw me for a loop. But I truly thought that I basically knew most of the native tree species...or at least knew OF them.

So I was amazed a year or so ago when I realized that there was a species of hackberry that grew in Kansas that I was simply unaware of. This doubly surprised me when I realized that I had seen this tree over and over and over again, but just hadn't recognized it as different from the normal hackberry of the area, Celtis occidentalis. I was triply surprised to realize that this species was growing on our little 10 acres, along with its relatives, hackberry and sugarberry (Celtis laevigata).

This "new discovery" of mine is the dwarf hackberry, Celtis tenuifolia. Here is a photo of one of the largest and most luxurious ones on our property, taken on June 22, before the worst of the heat and drought had taken hold. It doesn't look much different than this now.

I often see examples of this species in fence rows, where birds have kindly deposited the seeds along with a quick burst of fertilizer. I'd always assumed the specimens I was seeing were regular hackberries that were simply stunted because of where they happened to be growing.

Somehow I've overlooked the descriptions of this species in guidebooks, simply because I've never heard of it and therefore didn't expect to find it. It's certainly NOT an imposing giant of a tree, or a graceful form of a tree, or a conspicuously fruiting tree, or even a beautifully flowering tree. It's a gnarled, stunted, half-dead-looking survivor of a tree - it often looks like it should have given up a hundred times over but has held on despite everything the Plains' climate can throw at it.

There is nothing luxurious about this tree at all. It grows very slowly, almost seeming not to grow at all from year to year. Its leaves look chronically dusty, moth-eaten and malnourished. Its twigs and branches are short and look knotted or contorted. But the dwarf hackberry survives and, in its own way, it thrives. As it does, it provides food and shelter for the birds...and the occasional moment of humility to an amateur naturalist, who's learning how little she really knows as she learns more and more each day.


ProfessorRoush said...

Haven't seen that tree here in "upper" Kansas, but I'll start looking for it. Maybe it will spread as the Siberian elms continue to die off.

ProfessorRoush said...

Hi. Couldn't reply to your email about the catnip (all that anonymous blogger stuff)...but all mine grows in full sun. Give me a nudge in late September and I'll remember to collect seed heads for you. You coming up to KSU for the annual EMG continuing ed in late September?

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thank you! That would be great! Yes, I'll be at the conference, both attending and speaking.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Do hackberries have roots that go down like 40 feet? I thought I recently read that somewhere, which is maybe why they grow so slowly?

Gaia Gardener: said...

I've never heard of hackberry roots going particularly deep; the only reference I have that specifically talks about root shape and spread doesn't mention dwarf hackberry at all and says that common hackberry's roots are deep, widespreading laterals. That doesn't mean that dwarf hackberry's roots couldn't go quite deep, though.

Common hackberry actually grows relatively rapidly. That's one of the differences I've noticed between it and dwarf hackberry.