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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Forest Trees of America

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FOREST TREES OF AMERICA. Out of the great mass of forest growth in the United States and Canada, stretching from the palms on the southernmost keys to the birches and willows that, creep into the Arctic Circle, certain trees stand forth as possessing unusual interest. Some of them are noted principally for the beauty of their flowers, conspicuous among these being magnolias, dogwoods (Cornus); the gay red-bud (Cercis); the buckeyes (Æsculus); and the wild-crab (Malus coronaria); or, for their equally attractive fruit, which is sometimes much sought by birds, animals, aborigines or even by civilized folk. Thus the service berries (Amelanchier); the mountain-ashes (Sorbus); the wild cherries and plums (Prunus); and the persimmon (Diospyros) furnish food for man, bird and beast. Thorns (Cratægus); hollies (Ilex); sumachs (Rhus); manzanita (Arctostaphylos); madrono (Arbutus); mesquit (Prosopis), are very ornamental as well.

Other trees have historical connections that lend them interest, as is the case of the sassafras (Sassafras) to which were attributed so many medicinal virtues that the earliest explorers of the Atlantic coasts came partly in quest of cargoes of its spicy bark. The little palmetto of the Southern States (Sabal) appeared on the cockades, flag, medal and seal of South Carolina, possibly because the defenses of Charleston during the Revolution were constructed of their trunks, which absorbed the British cannon balls instead of splitting and thus resisted destruction. The white pine (Pinus strobus) has a similar distinction, having been depicted, very appropriately, upon some of the earliest American-Colonial, naval and New England flags. The giant pines, sometimes over 100 feet high, of this New England region furnished masts not only for shipping in general but for the Royal Navy, although the Royal reservation of selected trees for this purpose was continually disputed, especially in New Hampshire. Pepys notes with relief in 1666 “Very good news is come of four New England ships come home safe to Falmouth with masts for the king; which is a blessing mighty unexpected and without which, if for nothing else, we must have failed the next year.” Outside of its naval uses, until it became too scarce, white pine was the most used of its family, of which it is also the most valuable, having soft, fine-grained, buff-colored heart-wood easily worked, glued and painted, neither warping nor shrinking, and therefore of great value for furniture and interior finish, as well as for more ordinary purposes. Its place now, perforce, is taken by the heavier, more resinous southern pines, one of which (Pinus palustris) also yields southern naval stores; and by the giants of the race, the yellow Western pine (Pinus ponderosa) and the sugar pine (P. Lambertiana), so called from the sweet exudation of its cambium layer, that flourish on the mountain ranges of the Far West, and occasionally reach a height of more than 175 feet. The latter furnishes the widest and clearest boards of any pine. Pine nuts yielded by P. Sabiniona, P. monophylla, and other species are esteemed by men and squirrels who harvest them regularly.

Growing in restricted groves in California mountains, their distance from the sea said to be limited by the range of sea-fogs, are the marvelous redwoods (Sequoia), including those “Big Trees,” a few of which are saved from destruction only by State and Federal protection. These giants often more than 250 feet in height and thousands of years old present a tempting mark for lumber interests, who would split them up for the soft red, light, very durable timber, invaluable for shingles, grapevine stakes and many other uses, since the wood is straight-grained, easily split and worked and will receive a high polish. Other coniferous groups of the West include those Douglas firs or spruces (Pseudotsuga taxifolia), next to the Sequoias, the most gigantic trees of the Pacific forests, ordinarily growing 180 feet high. In dense stands their straightness and clearness of bole especially adapts them for masts and spars and derrick-booms. They resemble the graceful hemlocks (Tsuga) growing on both sides of the continent, the timber furnished by the Western species being the most valuable. Hemlock bark is an important tanning material and served with rancid salmon oil formed a peculiar item of the dietary of some of the Northwestern Indians. Spruces (Picea), many of which are planted for ornament for the sake of their symmetrical growth, thick foliage and color, yield a wood for rough construction work and are also one of the important sources of wood-pulp. Another genus of conifers likewise crushed for paper pulp is Abies, the firs. The aromatic balsam fir (Abies balsamea), moreover, stores a thin turpentine in its “blisters” called Canada balsam and its nearly scentless wood is liked for food-tubs. The rest of the genus furnish rough lumber. But the great source of pulpwood lies in the otherwise unimportant aspens, trees which cover the plains of northwestern Canada, and the larger poplars (Populus).

There are a number of trees which yield wood that is pre-eminently suitable for cabinet work or for interior finish of the finer sort, or for beautiful furniture. Two of them, black walnut (Juglans nigra) and the wild cherry (Prunus serotina), are so scarce at present that they have become very valuable. Wild cherry was formerly plentiful, especially along the northern Appalachians, where it attained to its greatest size, about 100 feet in height. It has shining and poisonous foliage, a medicinal bark and bears heavy crops of small black berries, most attractive to birds. The heartwood is reddish-brown, readily seasoned, straight and fine of grain, capable of receiving a satiny finish. It was a favorite material for furniture and cabinet work since it did not warp or shrink and took glue well. Early settlers finding cherry growing on the best farming soils destroyed it ruthlessly before discovering its value, consigning it to the fire or fence. They did the same to the easily-split black walnut which encumbered the earth with huge trunks that shot up for a hundred feet, clear of trunk if crowded in the forest, throwing out great limbs when growing in open spaces. Its rich-brown heartwood, straight-grained in general, but mottled and waved in crotch and root, heavy, hard and durable, satiny when polished, was in great demand as a cabinet wood and also valuable for gun-stocks and veneers. Nowadays the demand has revived and old fence-rails, stumps and even furniture are being sought for veneers and the like. Its congener, the butternut (Juglans cinerea) or white walnut, is also used for interior finish, having a charming satiny wood of a paler tint and lighter weight than black walnut. Both have rich-kerneled nuts that are valuable and were made into a kind of paste or milk by the Indians. Bark and shells of the latter species furnished that Colonial dye called “butternut brown.”

Beeches (Fagus) are favorite trees for lawn planting on account of their splendid forms, delicate spray and silvery, smooth bark. They bear many small, sweet, triangular nuts that are a favorite food of hogs, being known as “mast.” The wood is close-grained and hard, used for turning, for tool handles and particularly for clothes-pins. The heartwood of certain birches (Betula), a favorite material for spools, also serves for furniture, being sometimes stained to resemble cherry and mahogany. The black birch (Betula lenta) is one of the best species for this purpose and its spicy bark is distilled for the sake of its essential oil, very like and sometimes substituted for wintergreen oil. The gray or white bark of other species has caused them to be planted for ornament; Indians bent the great sheets of parchment-like bark of the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) into baskets and light canoes. Other trees of lesser importance in cabinet-making are the great tupelos and red gums (Nyssa), (Liquidamber) of southern bottom-lands, whose pale-brown heartwood has been hitherto considered too difficult to season and too gnarled and interlaced of fibre for profitable use except in paving blocks or small articles where its non-splitting qualities were an asset, but is now being utilized for barrels and boxes, flooring, interior finishing and furniture, under such names as Circassian walnut. The Western larch (Larix) also yields a red cabinet wood capable of a high finish.

Maple, especially in its waved and mottled forms, oak and ash are also made into furniture, but their wood is of greater general value. Maple particularly is in demand for flooring. The sap of the most important species (Acer Saccharum) is sweet and is crystallized into sugar, an art learned from Indians. Being regular in form and prodigal of handsome foliage the maples are adapted for ornamental uses. The leaves assume very brilliant colors, flaming scarlet in the soft maple (A. rubrum). This species, with the large-leaved (A. macrophyllum) and the silver maple (A. saccharinum) are to be planted in France to mark the graves of fallen Canadian soldiers, a maple leaf being the badge of that country and of its troops.

The slow-growing white oak (Quercus alba), often spared by the farmer to shelter his stock in pastures, where it spreads wide its heavy branches, forming a wide dome-shaped head, represents the most durable, strongest and most generally suitable wood of all the valuable timber trees in this group, for the infinite variety of uses to which the timber is put. The acorns of certain Western species furnish a regular crop of acorns gathered by Indians in the locality as a staple food. The bark of other species, particularly that of the chestnut oak (Q. Prinus) of the East, and the tanbark oak (Q. densiflora) of the West, is used for tanning, while that of the quercitron (Q. velutina) or black oak, contains a yellow dye-stuff. The Garry oak (Q. Carryana) of the West is important because it is the only oak of that region which has valuable wood. The pin oak (Q. palustris) is often planted for ornament, its lower branches sweeping the ground, while the middle ones are horizontal and the upper ones ascending.

Carriage- and wagon-building has always called for woods that are tough, elastic, pliable, strong and durable or unsplittahle, according to their predestined use. Tough ash (Fraxinus), which is also a favorite material for oar-making and agricultural implements, is one of these necessary woods. The white ash (Fraxinus Americana), is one of the straight-stemmed forest trees that exceed 75 feet in height and are scattered more or less among other hardwoods throughout the East, arriving at its best estate in the bottom-lands of the lower Ohio. Ash trees, on account of their rapid growth and comparative freedom from disease, are favorite ornamental trees for street and lawn and pasture. But the graceful elm is more frequently seen, especially in New England. Although distressed by noxious insects, the American elm (Ulmus Americana) is one of the most beautiful trees that can be planted, its slender arching branches forming a vase-shaped head, with pendulous spray. Like that of the ash, its tough, hard wood, split with difficulty, is used in agricultural implements as well as vehicles, for small cooperage, the bottoms of wheelbarrows and for other purposes where its peculiar qualities are utilized. The slippery elm (U. fulva) furnishes a mucilaginous bark,

Americana 1920 Forest Trees - Shagbark Hickory.jpg

1 Shagbark Hickory (Hicoria ovata)

Several hickories (Hicoria) are employed in vehicle-building, the wood being unique for its toughness and elasticity, which makes it invaluable for light but strong carriages. The hickories also bear edible nuts, those from trees with “shag” or “shell” bark as (H. ovata) being preferred. H. Pecan bears the thin-shelled, sweet pecan nuts of commerce. Linden trees (Tilia) whose drooping flowers are so prodigal of nectar and so alluring to bees that they are often called “bee trees,” supply a soft, fine-grained wood that by steaming can be bent into shapes suitable for carriage panels. In the spring, too, its bark can be separated into “bast,” long, tough ribbons used by florists as a tie-material instead of strings, whence its common name of basswood. The tulip-tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) has several names, yellow poplar being perhaps the most common one, although carpenters speak of the pale-tinted kinds as “whitewood.” Among the soft woods it ranks next to white pine and “cuts like cheese” and is superior to linden for carriage panels. The tree has a a characteristically straight tapering trunk if grown in forests, arriving at more than 100 feet, but throws out limbs forming a huge cone where it has room. The orange-splashed, tulip-shaped, lemon-colored flowers borne at the tips of branches among pale-green quaintly-shaped foliage, as well as its stately growth, make this a fine ornamental tree.

Americana 1920 Forest Trees - Tulip Tree.jpg

2 Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

There is a great demand for trees that are strong and tough, and above all durable when in contact with the ground, for telephone and telegraph poles, fence-posts, railway sleepers or “ties” and sills. Before blight threatened to exterminate them, chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) were chosen and even planned for this purpose, their timber being light, strong in young trees and easily split for these purposes, as well as for furniture, interior work, foundations for veneers and the like. It also bears delicious, thin-shelled nuts in prickly burrs. The locust (Robinia pseudacacia), that is often planted as an ornamental tree on account of its heavy clusters of fragrant, honey-yielding white flowers and is known as “Acacia” in Europe, is another source of a hard, heavy, durable timber for fence-posts. The varying color of the heartwood has caused it to be called yellow, green, red and even black locust. Out of it are made tough ringing policemen's clubs. Its good qualities are shared by the heavily-armed honey locust (Gleditsia tricanthos), of which the fruits are heavy pods filled with sweet pulp. The osage orange (Toxylon pomiferum), although of moderate size only, furnishes a hard yellow wood used somewhat as a substitute for fustic and is suitable for ties and fence posts; it is, moreover, a favorite hedging plant where it is hardy. Hardy catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) is another tree which has been planted experimentally to furnish ties and poles. It grows very rapidly and produces wood that is among the most durable kinds known, but the trees have a tendency toward crooked growth.

Among conifers the Douglas fir is used for poles and ties where more durable timber does not exist, and the long leaf pine (Pinus palustris), rapidly vanishing, is used in the South. The red cedar of the East (Juniperus Virginiana) has ruddy heartwood which is one of the most valuable in America, not only for posts but for pencils, this soft, easily-cut, fragrant wood superseding every other kind for the latter purpose, when it can be cut from the great trees that form groves in middle Tennessee. Since its odors repel insects, clothes-chests and closets are often made of cedar. Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), very often used in place of pine, especially when exposed to the weather, is another post tree ornamental as well for its height and symmetry, growing to great height and bulk in swampy land, where it thrusts out of the water peculiar growths called “Knees.” It is deciduous like the tamarack (Larix laricina), a common tree in Canada, whose tall slender boles are considered to be the strongest and most durable of Canadian woods not only for posts but for ship's keels and masts. Tall-growing white cedars, or arbor-vitæ (Thuya), whose flattened, fan-like spray is familiar in hedges, are very durable when exposed to the weather as posts or shingles. The giant Western species (T. plicata) averages more than 150 feet in height, having in maturity a curiously fluted conical trunk, covered with a tough stringy bark, inner layers of which are converted by Indians into fabrics and baskets. It is called red cedar or simply “cedar” in the West, more than half of the shingles in the United States being manufactured from its fragrant, reddish, light and durable wood. Consult Browne D. J., ‘The Trees of America’ (New York n.d.); Elliott, S. B., ‘Important Timber Trees of the United States’ (Boston and New York 1912); Fuller, A. S., ‘Practical Forestry’ (New York 1884); Henkel, A., ‘American Medicinal Barks’ (United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry Bulletin 139, Washington 1909); Small, H. B., ‘Canadian Forests’ (Montreal 1884); Sudworth, G. B., ‘Forest Trees of the Pacific Slope’ (United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington 1908), and many pamphlets issued by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Helen Ingersoll.