I got to thinking tonight about the trees I’ve been learning about this past year, and felt like giving myself a quiz to see which ones I could rattle off from memory. I’ve been learning the genus/species names as I go, too, and sometimes accidentally the family names. Though I’ve ID’d dozens more than this (lemon, avocado, elms, ashes, tons of gums and palms…), and have read through probably a few hundred in tree books and vats of species listed online from my area in west LA, my folks’ area in S. NJ (I know several oaks and maples from there, e.g.), and lots of tropicals (especially while learning about exotic woods), these are the ones I actually have committed to memory from my area. They are the ones I have touched, seen with my own eyes as they passed through all 4 seasons, crushed up and smelled the leaves from, examined bark, branches, flowers, and seed pods from (even planting and nurturing about a half-dozen of them), and can definitely tell from other trees now. Something like a lemon – I know it’s a lemon (and that the leaves when torn or crushed smell incredible, like lemon candy), and where a bunch of particular ones are in my neighborhood, but I don’t know which lemons they are, and don’t even know the scientific names of any lemons. Many trees still fall into this lesser category – the trees I kinda know, but don’t really know.
Oh, and the gums… good luck learning all of them. I can point to dozens of eucalyptus species and say with no doubt “that’s a gum!” but I can only ID roughly 2 species from them, and I’m not even 100% sure that I’m not really seeing something from the 700 or so of which I’ve never seen any photos. There is no comprehensive online guide, or even any pictures at all online for most of them. They also hybridize with one another easily, and go through dramatic changes in leaf shape and size and bark colors and textures that all cross paths with one another at different times in their lives, so even experts have quite a chore ahead of them when figuring out which species they’re seeing. The leaves of many (most?) are very round – almost circles – when young, but later in life stretch to many times longer than their width, taking on a falcate (like a falcon’s claw) or lanceolate (like a spear, or lance head) shape.
Anyway, here’s what I could actually type out from memory, and it’s a list of 26 species I recognize often in my neighborhood and surrounding areas here in west LA:
Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia)
Indian Laurel Fig/Green Island Fig/Chinese Banyan (Ficus microcarpa)
Purple Orchid Tree (Bauhinia variegata)
Purple Leaf Plum (Prunus cerasifera)
Chinese Evergreen Pear (Pyrus kamakawii)
Chinese Flame Tree (Koelreuteria bipinnata)
American Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)
Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Red Ironbark/Mugga (Eucalpytus sideroxylon)
Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia)
Hollywood Juniper (Juniperus chinensis)
Paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia)
Weeping Bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis)
California Pepper Tree (Schinus molle)
Fern Pine (Podocarpus gracilior)
Coast Coral (Erythrina caffra)
Naked Coral (Erythrina coralloides)
Benjamin Fig/Weeping Fig (Ficus Benjamina)
European Olive (Olea europaea)
Gold Medallion Tree (Cassia Leptophylla)
English Walnut (Juglans regia)
Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa)
Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)
Pink Melaleuca/Pink Honey-Myrtle (Melaleuca nesophila)
I admit I completely forgot the species name of the Naked Coral (would have remembered it if I wasn’t quizzing myself, I think – too much pressure ;) and Pink Honey-Myrtle (I’ve only seen one, next door to me, and learned later that the twisty trees at the beach near where I used to work are also these, but they’re still very rare to me, and not heavily ingrained yet), and the California Pepper Tree, being a very recent addition to my brain was a complete blank for both genus and species names. I also couldn’t remember if Norfolk Island Pine was Auracaria (my guess) or Araucaria (the right word – my second guess), but there you have it. Those are the ones I see all the time. It’s quite a variety of sizes, shapes, smells, textures, and colors, as trees go, unlike the spread of trees back east where I grew up, where in winter they all kind of look like the same trees divided into two groups – deciduous and evergreen – and aren’t really strikingly different inside. There are no dark woods there, though I may have found a walnut or two.
Missing from my list above are the many palms and conifers surrounding me. I’ve not really delved into them yet, though I did spend some of one night last year going through a huge list of palms I found on a website, which I promptly forgot entirely. I’m not super interested in them as most are not good for woodworking, and we don’t seem to have the kinds that are, like black palm, which I’d love to find a big chunk of. It has a dark brown color with black lines running all through it, like very regular spalting lines. Too, I’m not very into conifers, as while the wood is great for building, it’s often too resin-filled to work without pitch setting, which I can’t do here, and a lot of it is rather boring inside. Certainly there are gorgeous exceptions, and I want to try them, too, but mostly it’s soft stuff that’s pale and featureless. That said, my list is probably 90% or better of what I see all the time. There are a few remarkable standouts that I’ve not ID’d yet, but see often enough. I’ve got them in my sights, though. They’ll be solved eventually. I almost don’t want to, because I like having a little mystery still. As I drive all around LA, Hollywood, Burbank, Santa Monica, Venice, Culver City…, I know almost everything I’m seeing. I do wonder, however, if I’m just looking past the ones I don’t know in favor of recognizing and naming the ones I do.
I’ve learned about a number of plants along the journey, like the Princess flower, or Glory flower, which can grow into a small shrub or spindly tree and has strikingly rich purple flowers, and the Pride of Madeira – another shrub-like, spreading plant with spikes of purple flowers and stems that are thick and a bit woody at the base – and the remarkable Angel Trumpet (Brugmansia arborea) that forms a small (though sometimes quite tall) shrub covered in huge, yellow, trumpet-like flowers that all hang straight down toward the ground, but I’ll stick to talking big trees in here :)
-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator