Become a dendro-detective: Why you should get to know your silent friends


Around Cam’s Campfire Updated Sig

Cameron Luker

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend that is hundreds of years old? One that has seen things change yet has stood firm against the hardships of time. You can meet many of these friends as you walk to class or take a hike through the woods.

The trees around us our some of our best friends. They provide us shade in the summer, clean our water and air, and provide food and homes for some of our favorite feathered and furry friends. Just like a good friend, they can even help lower stress according to a study from the University of Wollongong in China

We should show some gratitude to the trees and take some time to get to know them. Usually, learning more about our friends makes us care about them more, and the same can be said for trees. Knowing even a few basic types of trees and what they like can make your hikes or even strolls through campus much more rewarding.

Trees provide lots of clues about where you are. For example, if you around surrounded by the short, shaggy forms of red cedars, you can bet that limestone is just under your feet. If you see the paper white branches of the water-loving sycamore, you can be confident that a creek is nearby. Armed with a knowledge of a few species, you can become a dendro-detective and piece together the history of an area. 

The species of tree can also tell you about the age of the forest you are visiting. Short-lived box elders and locusts pop up first when a disturbed forest begins to recover. Then oaks and beech that play the long game take over as the pioneer trees die. These trees can live a long time, and in some of the oldest forests in Kentucky it is possible to find oaks that began growing in 1600s.

The observant dendro-detective can even see clear differences between what tree species are present depending on the direction a hillside faces, showing the mind-blowing levels of biodiversity that can occur within just a few acres of a forest.

I hope that taking a deeper look at the areas you visit will help grow your appreciation for the complexity of the ecosystems that we take for granted when we hike, run, climb or bike.

Furthermore, I hope that this appreciation will help you become a good friend back to the trees that do so much for us. Trees can’t advocate for themselves, so we can be their friend when they need help. Trees are threatened by human development, disease, fire and pollution, so by understanding our trees we can find better ways to deal with these threats.

The better you know someone and understand their problem, the better you can take care of them when they need a hand. So, the next time you find yourself near a tree that you want to befriend, just start by asking its name.

Around Cam’s Campfire is a new column by Cameron Luker, student intern for the Urban Forest Initiative.