Mistaken identity

Maryland has been my home for 30 years, most of which I’ve spent under the canopy of an enormous tree. It is a gnarly, lumpy beast with a trunk five feet across that splits off into massive limbs large enough to be trees in their own right. Buried deep in one of those is a cable – attached, we suppose, sometime back in the 1940’s or 50’s – that still anchors all of the utility poles on our street. It is a tree whose impressive presence is so central to our local landscape that I can’t imagine living here without it.


The gigantic tree was one of the first features that attracted me to this property. My first glimpse of its patchy, camouflage-patterned bark, scalloped leaves, and furry round seed balls told me its name immediately: sycamore. The tree’s behavior confirmed this.  In summer, it litters the yard with ragged strips of shed bark: sycamore. The brittle, irregular limbs grow quickly and are prone to breaking, often getting hung up in the crown: sycamore. Small branches sprout from the base or at random spots along the trunk: sycamore. One of my neighbors up the street refers to this and other trees like it in our neighborhood as “London plane trees.” I always dismissed this as Maryland vernacular for sycamore.

Last week, the Maryland Biodiversity Project announced a “Facebook Blitz” to document sycamores throughout Maryland. There was plenty of cautionary instruction about making sure that a tree was really an American sycamore.  Wild American sycamores grow almost exclusively along streams. The bark on their trunks is rough, and the branches display the striking camouflage pattern, with a bone-white background. The seed ball fruits grow singly. These are the features, they emphasized, by which one may distinguish the American sycamore from a close look-alike that is often planted in urban settings.

At Jemicy, we found several sycamores growing in their classic habitat, along the banks of the stream, white limbs stretching high into the canopy and standing out against the darker tulip trees and oaks. The rough, dark, lower bark contrasted with the upper limbs, which bore a few single seed balls.

Back at home, I went out to photograph our sycamore as well. As I searched for a good angle to capture the immensity of the tree, I paused to examine its features more closely. The gigantic lower trunk was a lumpy patchwork of colors and peeling layers, but the bark there was not uniformly rough like those trees at school. Its upper branches bore the same palette of colors in greens and yellows – but without the signature stark white base color. To top it off, dangling from some of those branches were last year’s seed balls – paired, not single. This tree, and several others just like it in this dry, upland area, were clearly planted here intentionally. This was not an American sycamore.


My neighbor was right: it appears to be a London plane (Platanus × acerifolia), a hybrid cross between the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis). This species has been planted extensively in urban and suburban settings due to its tolerance for pollution, root compaction, and resistance to diseases that affect the native sycamore.

Does my 29-year-long mistake even matter? The tree certainly doesn’t care. it is just a classic case of assumptions superseding research. I had never heard of a London plane tree before coming here, so I went with what I knew: sycamore. The differences between the two species were never apparent to me, because I wasn’t looking for them. Even when traveling in Italy a few years ago, seeing a row of massive trees in Florence’s Boboli Gardens that looked just like my tree at home, I assumed that they were sycamores.

“Science loves a good mistake!” I often tell my students. This tree that I love has not changed, just because I now know its true identity. In fact, my awareness now prompts me to examine apparent sycamores with a more discerning eye, and to ask new questions about our tree: What caused those odd lumps on the trunk? Does this hybrid share the same pests with American sycamore? Do both species shed minuscule, highly aggravating hairs from their leaves? Why does it have a spring leaf drop? Are its seeds fertile? After all these years, there is new opportunity to learn from the giant in my yard.



Fly away home

geese flight

The first migratory creature I ever knew was my mother. She was born and raised on a farm in Canada, but during her teenage years she traveled back and forth to the US to attend school in Ohio. When she eventually married my American father and settled here, she retained her Canadian citizenship and would proudly display her border crossing card when we went to visit my grandparents and cousins in the summer. Even after becoming a US citizen later in life, her identity was solidly Canadian, the maple leaf was her symbol, and snow was her element. Every March, she would tap the two maple trees that stood in our front yard, send us out to sled and play in the remaining snowdrifts, and skate with us until the ice melted on our little farm pond.

My mother also loved birds, though she clearly distinguished between those native ones that she deemed good, and those introduced ones that were pests: grackles, house sparrows, starlings. She encouraged me to find the nests of pest birds and add their eggs to my collection. A purple martin colony house sat on a high pole near the garden. Every spring before the martins returned, my father would empty out the nests of opportunistic house sparrows and starlings (while I attempted – usually unsuccessfully – to secretly rescue and raise any hatchlings). My mother set out bluebird houses, too, but these beloved birds were locally rare from years of intensive pesticide use in the orchards that surrounded us. A feeder was kept filled throughout the winter so that she could keep an eye on bird activity from a window while she did housework. She often shooed away the voracious blue jays who mobbed the feeder so that the smaller chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches could get their fair share. Many years later, in her assisted living apartment, my mother made grudging peace with house sparrows, the only birds that visited the small window feeder that she was given. “So messy,” she complained, but she always made sure that the aides kept the feeder filled.

Though I can’t recall them ever visiting our pond, I imagine that my mother’s favorite bird of all was the Canada goose. She called them “Canadian” geese, making sure to ally her nationality with these avian compatriots even as their increasing abundance and residential status made farmers and golf courses regard them as a nuisance. When my parents moved to a retirement center with a lovely lake surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens, my mother was delighted to find that it hosted a resident flock of geese. Complaints from residents and groundskeepers about the mess they made on the banks and sidewalks led to numerous strategies – from border collies to my father’s Model T and its klaxon horn – to drive them away. I think my mother was pleased by the geese’s stubborn persistence. Even though she might not recognize people, she could always distinguish the forms of geese on the lake from the windows of the dining room. On walks by the lake, we would bring her wheelchair as close to them as we dared. She acknowledged that these particular geese no longer migrated – but then, neither did she. They were still Canadian kinfolk at heart.

When I consider what brings biodiversity home for me, I credit my mother with instilling in me not only that first deep interest in living things, but also an appreciation for their remarkable resilience under adverse conditions. Her recent passing, just shy of 94, was followed by a late winter snowstorm that she would have enthusiastically greeted as “good Canadian weather.” With sleet and snow pelting my windows, I watched a throng of chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, sparrows, woodpeckers and juncoes work the feeders and snow beneath them, searching for seeds.

Like the geese I’ve observed feeding energetically in other March snowfalls, and the flock that sounded off as they passed over, heading north on this gusty morning, these are creatures whose hardy resourcefulness will continue to remind me of where I come from.

geese flight 2

The toads and the bees

It’s official: spring has arrived in Maryland around 3 weeks early this year. Temperatures in the upper 60’s and into the 70’s brought crocuses into bloom, bees to the crocuses, and mourning cloak butterflies to the meadows.

At school, we tried to tap some red maples, but we were already too late. Their buds burst into bloom, and we retired the sap buckets until next year.

Speedwell, deadnettle, and bittercress showed their tiny blossoms, and clouds of winged ants swarmed over the playground and through the woods.

All this was accompanied by other data from the National Phenology Network, with an interactive map showing the progression of spring to different areas across the US. I really missed spring – my favorite time of year – when I was in New Zealand, but this feels like too much, far too early. But how to tell the serviceberry, the redbud, the spicebush to hold off just a bit longer? redbudThey are compelled to open in response to the warm temperatures around them – and when those temperatures drop back below freezing, as they are forecast to do this weekend, there is no going back.

During recess today, younger kids came running to tell me of a discovery: “There’s a big toad giving a piggyback ride to a little toad!” The middle schoolers grinned knowingly. The toads were in a dry, paved corner near the middle school wing, surrounded by an audience with lots of questions. The older students and I fielded them as best we could.”Why are they doing that?” “Because the smaller one, the male, wants to be right there when the female lays eggs.” “Why?”  “So he can be the father.” “When will she lay eggs?” “When she finds the right pool of water to lay them in.” And so on.

Finally the bell rang for the end of recess, and I placed the toad pair in a bucket. Later, with one of my JE classes, we carried them down into the woods to a shallow vernal pool to release. The kids were impressed that the male had continued to hold on to the female throughout this trip. I pointed out that if we hadn’t intervened, the female would probably have made this same long trip herself, hauling her partner the whole way – a behavior called amplexus.toads-amplexus

We left the toads contemplating their new habitat, knowing we’d be back to look for eggs as this unseasonable season unfolds.