Species Spotlight: 4 Trees in Spring

Learn more about the honeylocust, redbud, nuttall oak, and sweetbay magnolia.

Planting season has come to an end, but now it’s much easier to identify and get to know different species, as trees flower and leaf out. Challenge yourself this spring and summer to learn how to identify some new species of trees, and use this spotlight as a starting point!

Blog written with research and writing support from volunteer Brooke Maroldi. Thank you, Brooke.

Honeylocust

In Tennessee, the Cherokees made bows from honeylocust wood. Bees and other insects feed on honeylocust flowers. In folklore, the honeylocust tree is a symbol of tolerance and protection. The name honeylocust comes from the fragrant legumes which are a food source for wildlife. The long pods, which eventually dry out, contain pulp that was used to make traditional remedies by Native Americans. Teas were made for the treatment of indigestions and the pod juice has antiseptic qualities.

This tree thrives in a wide range of soils, and even prefers poor, compacted soils. It tolerates both wet and dry sites, as well as salt and urban pollution. 

To identify a honeylocust: In natural landscapes, honeylocust are easy to spot because of their long, sharp clusters of thorns on the trunk and branches. (You can also find lots of them at the Nashville Zoo!) But we plant thornless varieties in neighborhoods. Look for very small leaves that almost look feather-like. At this time of year, the leaves are just starting to emerge from the tips of branches. The leaves will turn a beautiful golden yellow in the fall.

Nuttall oak

Like many other oaks, the nuttall oak is native to Middle Tennessee and is fast becoming a favorite; the nuttall oak is particularly strong. Another advantage of the nuttall is that once it matures, there is enough space under its branches to easily walk underneath. This has made it a desirable species for residential gardens and even as a street tree. 

Oak trees have symbolized wisdom, honor, nobility and great strength in many cultures through the ages. In ancient mythology as well as some Native American beliefs, the oak was linked to powerful gods of rain and thunder, like Zeus. They are incredible foundations for local ecosystems and wildlife as well. Doug Tallamy’s latest book The Nature of Oaks explores the effect these trees can make on even just one property.

To identify a nuttall oak: You might want to wait a few more weeks, or even another month! Oaks are some of the last trees to sprout leaves in the spring. Once the leaves do emerge, look for five to seven narrow lobes with an elongated terminal lobe, and nuttall oaks have acorns that are more long than broad. Check out this handy guide from the University of Tennessee Extension for Identifying Oak Trees Native to Tennessee.

Redbud

Trees can certainly be the focus of political spats and the redbud is a perfect example. Back in 1937, considerable controversy was stirred up when it was named the official state tree in Oklahoma. Some Christians believe that Judas Escariot hanged himself on a redbud after betraying Jesus. (This may be why the redbuds have long been associated with Easter.) On the other side of the spectrum, young girls in rural Arkansas have been known to tie small cloth bundles to redbud branches in the hope of casting a “love spell.” Traditional medicine healers have used redbud’s inner bark and roots to treat cold and flu symptoms. They also prepared it as a tea to flush out the “winter blues”. 

The redbud’s fragrant flowers are edible, with a slightly sour taste, and can be added to salads, breads and pancakes. Unopened buds can be pickled and used as substitutes for capers. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and song birds are attracted to redbuds and bees use the flowers for pollen. Redbuds are loved for their four seasons of attractive displays. And because they’re small, they fit well in tight urban gardens. 

To identify a redbud: By this point in the spring, the pinkish-purple flowers have mostly faded from the redbud, but you might still find some hanging on. Look now for the emerging heart-shaped leaves.

Sweetbay magnolia

Back in Victorian times, magnolias symbolized dignity and nobility. In ancient China, they were symbols of feminine beauty and gentleness.  

Here in Nashville, sweetbay magnolias are delightful year-round with their semi-evergreen foliage and smooth gray bark which has the distinctive fragrance of bay laurel spice. These graceful trees seem to glimmer when the silvery-green undersides of their leaves rustle in the wind. Each spring the intoxicating scent of creamy white, lemon-scented flowers can be appreciated from hundreds of yards away. 

To identify a sweetbay magnolia: These trees are different from the huge Southern magnolia trees that have dark-green evergreen leaves. Sweetbay leaves are much lighter green in color and are multi-stemmed — look for trees that almost look like shrubs or clusters.

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