Hey don’t tell my wife, but I am having a love affair. I am having a love affair with trees, really I am. No not in the sense that you are thinking, but I really do love trees. Again, not in a tree hugging sense that is prevalent for many political conservationists. What I really mean is that I like trees, a lot.
This enjoyment of trees for me started at an early age while I was on a particular squirrel hunt in the Daniel Boone National Forest, Pioneer Weapons area. I was around 12 or 13 as best I remember and had invited a friend to come. I won’t mention his name because this small story is a bit embarrassing for guys like he and I, I also think he reads our articles from time to time. I was told by my dad to go out a particular trail and sit down by “the huge white oak tree”. He said we could not miss it, because it was exceptionally large, and then gave very good details about where to find it. As my friend and I started on our little trek, we saw one of the finest whitetail deer bucks I have ever seen. I can still picture him now, some 25 years or so later. With that aside, we trekked on towards our white oak, not realizing that neither of us had the faintest idea what a white oak tree looked like.
My dad told us it was no more than a few hundred yards down the trail. After walking for what seemed like forever and not seeing this special tree, we determined that we had walked too far and in our minds were lost. Although in reality, we had never left the trail and were less than a mile from our drop off point. Nevertheless, in our minds we were lost and we started yelling and walking back towards our starting point. At some point we ran in to my dad, who had stopped along the way and was fortunate enough to bag a couple of squirrels. Lesson learned I suppose. On our way back my Dad stopped to point out the big white oak and how to identify it compared to the other trees. So began my love affair with tree. I would like to mention a couple of prominent species that are easily identified in our area.
Up until that point I thought trees were pretty much all alike. You know what I mean, kind of woody at the bottom, kind of leafy at the top. So I started a serious study of trees, and like a lot of outdoorsman, tried to develop a keen awareness of those that provided certain benefits. For example, there are red oaks and then there are white oaks, and then many, many subspecies of each . Animals, including humans, typically find that acorns from white oak species are more palatable. Both still tend to be bitter to taste at anytime, but by running them through 2-3 good rolling boils of water, you may find them easier to eat. Native Americans would dry and crush them into flour used for cakes, resembling flat cornbread of today. I have done this and found it to be A LOT of work, for a little food. This is one more reason to respect those that lived off the land for centuries before us.
You can use pine needles to make a good tea in the outdoors, you basically put the needles into water that has already been boiled and then let them steep. I particularly enjoy white pine needles over Virginia pine needle. Both have the benefit of providing lots of vitamin C, and beta-carotene.
No good article on trees in our area would be complete without at least mentioning the best of the best, the American chestnut. This species virtually covered our “neck of the woods” here in the Appalachians for centuries, before it died out. There were two distinct killers, the chestnut blight and the onslaught of settlement both here and in faraway places. These huge trees had fruit (nuts) on them that were much more than just palatable, considered a sweet-tasting for many. No preparation needed, just pick them off the ground and enjoy! Unfortunately, you can no longer find them in widespread growth anywhere. There are isolated trees through ought the Appalachians and even into the Northeastern US.
Until then, pick up a copy of Illustrated Book of Trees by Wallace Grimm, it has been my go-to source for tree study for years now. Regarding the chestnut, I highly recommend the American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree by Susan Freinkel.