Work required to make call on mystery tree

Work required to make call on mystery tree
John C. Lorson

Side by side comparison of the foliage of the bald cypress and dawn redwood makes the identification simpler, but the dried leaves (needles) of these two deciduous conifers proved much more challenging than a summertime comparison. The somewhat pointy needles of the bald cypress on the left are attached alternately on the stem while the dawn redwood on the right carries more rounded needles that are attached opposite each other.


Last week I was stuck beside the trail trying to figure out what sort of tree could wear all the needled greenery of the average forest fir for the length of the summer and then morph into a bronze-tinged ghost of itself in the fall, dropping needles like a dreadfully neglected Christmas tree.

I knew there existed a handful of species, deciduous conifers, that lose their needles each year just as the mighty oak and maple, but aside from having read about them a bit, I’d never really paid much attention to them or any other plants for that matter (a sad truth considering my biology major in college). But one thing I’ve come to realize as I’ve grown older is nothing inspires learning like a good mystery, and for me this curious bronze cone of a tree presented a fine opportunity for discovery.

After shooting a few photos and scooping a handful of needled branchlets into my backpack, I rode off intent on studying up once I arrived home at the end of the day. My photos offered a marginal body of evidence, but the samples I’d collected had unfortunately been crunched to dust along the route by all of the other necessary debris carried on my back as part of my daily bicycle commute.

Still, assuming the tree would be simple enough to key out using a photo of the needles and a general description of the tree, I dove into it. My first resource was an app on my smartphone called Picture This. It has been a valuable aid in the past in learning about other plant species, in particular dozens of different wildflowers I’ve encountered in my travels along the trail throughout the course of the year.

It’s incredibly simple to use; you just snap a photo, and it shares its best guess of what you’re looking at along with some other possibilities. While not always drop-dead accurate, it has at least consistently provided a starting point. There are times when the app seems to ruminate for a bit in deciding, but that was not the case this time. Picture This returned an identification of bald cypress almost immediately.

I’d grown up seeing photos of the giant cypress swamps of the south, replete with wood ducks, alligators and Spanish moss spookily drooping from the forest canopy.

“This is ridiculous,” I’d muttered. “Cypress trees grow in the swamp, and this thing is growing high and dry on a well-drained, sunlit spot.”

Next up on the resource list was my Golden field guide to “Trees of North America,” which opened the door to some other possibilities, most likely and intriguing of which was the introduced (non-native) species commonly referred to as the dawn redwood.

Long-presumed extinct, this close relative of the giant sequoias of California redwood fame had been described in the fossil record for decades prior to becoming a “living fossil” when a Chinese scientist discovered a population of the trees growing in a remote valley in China in the mid-1940s. Scientists from all over the world descended on the find, gathering seeds and starting populations of the attractive, fast-growing and largely disease-resistant tree in temperate climates all over the world. (Visit the Secrest Arboretum in Wooster to find a wonderful grove of the trees that top out in the vicinity of 100 feet.)

Further internet research confirmed I was looking at either a bald cypress or dawn redwood, but without seeing the two in a side-by-side comparison, it was impossible for an amateur like me to make the call. That’s when I contacted one of my favorite (and now retired) professors from Wayne College, Forrest Smith, who not only briefed me on what to look for, but also told me exactly where to find a sample of each — he planted them himself on the Wayne campus nearly 40 years ago.

Next, in a wonderfully serendipitous meet-up, Gary Graham from OSU Extension happened into my office on other business and I was able to pick his brain as well. He sent me a fact sheet from the University of Minnesota detailing the history of and differences between both species.

The final verdict? The Picture This app was correct from the start. My mystery tree along the trail is a bald cypress. It turns out they can grow in a whole range of conditions including “high and dry” along a bike trail. Stop and check it out sometime at the intersection of the trail with Sterling Street just south of Fredericksburg.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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