Arbo Paths: Winter wonders – include native tree bark

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Many of these columns emphasize the simple pleasure of taking time to notice the little moments that might otherwise pass us by – whether the beauty of pearly dewdrops strung on a spider web, the intricate antics of insects, or the delicate curve of a vine’s unfurling tendril as it searches for an anchor. These moments can return us to the sense of wonder, and the joy of exploring the natural world we first experienced as children.

As we spin through the years, it is very easy to become so tangled up in the tasks of daily life but forget how easy it is to take advantage of these opportunities to wonder. Parents receive a new chance to learn to wonder by seeing the world freshly through the eyes of their children, and re-discover the little moments. This is evident with families who visit the Arboretum. Their delight is obvious as they describe the marvels they have discovered on their journey down our pathways.

Now that most of the trees have shed their leaves, visitors comment on other aspects of the plants in our exhibits – the plump buds on our native azaleas, a promise of the pink, yellow, and orange sweetly scented flowers that will draw swallowtail butterflies in spring, the now-revealed thorny nature of trees such as mayhaw or southern crabapple, or the brown leaves that still cling to the American beech trees – these will persist throughout the winter, until pushed off by newly emerging leaves.

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Without leaves to hide the trunks and detract one’s attention, tree bark is now much more obvious on a walk through our grounds. Visitors comment on the lichens decorating the trunks of trees such as the American holly growing next to our deck at the Visitor Center. Other smooth-trunked trees such as red maple and sweetbay magnolia also can sport lichen growth.

Lichens are a symbiotic combination of a fungus and algae. The association is “symbiotic” because each is getting something from the other. The fungus supplies the structure and the algae supplies “food” because it can conduct photosynthesis. There are different forms of lichens. Some grow tightly against the trunk, while some are crusty, and others are loose and scaly in form.

On interesting fact about lichens is that they are a source of natural dyes and have been used for centuries for this purpose to dye yarn and cloth. Enter those keywords into an Internet search engine to see some beautiful hues of purple, pink, yellow, and orange.

A common question we get is whether the lichens are harming the tree. Fast-growing trees do not provide a suitable environment for them to take hold, but lichens can find a foothold on slow-growing woody plants, for example, tree species that are naturally slow-growing, such as the American holly. But they are also found on plants whose growth is compromised by soil that is starved of oxygen due to being compacted or too wet. Here, lichens are an indicator of poor health.

If you have a nature-lover in the family, consider getting them a book on identifying trees by their bark. Together, learn to recognize and appreciate the bark of our local trees, for instance, the scaly bark of longleaf pine, which provides protection against fire, the smooth bark of American beech, the blocky bark of persimmon, or the furrowed bark of sweetgum.

Some bark is warty, like hackberry or sugarberry. American hornbeam has a muscular appearance. Swamp chestnut oak, and shagbark hickory have a “shaggy” bark. River birch and American sycamore have attractive peeling bark. The white trunks of sycamore make it a pretty picture against a blue winter sky. Search the Web for craft projects using sycamore bark, and have some family fun inside on a chilly day.

Here in the Piney Woods region, we have an abundance of pine needles. Learn how to fashion them into pine needle baskets in a workshops with Judy Breland, Stone County Extension Agent, that will be held at the Arboretum on Saturday, January 10 from 9:30 to noon. The cost is $7 for non-members and $5 for members. Call the office to pre-register up for this program.

The Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For more information, call the office at(601) 799-2311 or see our website at

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: While it is not necessary to have a book or guide to explore nature with a youngster, there are many great resources to be found by plugging in the keywords, “exploring nature with children” into your favorite Internet search engine. More than one visitor has mentioned they have enjoyed reading books by Richard Louv, who wrote “Last Child in the Woods”, which emphasizes the connection between nature and children’s physical and emotional health.

By Patricia Drackett