Discovering exotic woods in the Urban forests of North America

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Blog entry by rustfever posted 12-29-2009 09:16 PM 1724 reads 1 time favorited 13 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I have had some good fortune to discover several ‘exotic’ woods growing in our community. This success has whet my appetite for more.

I have been searching for some work [or works] that can help me discover more such woods.

I am interested in discovering the names of various native and relocated tree [ususally use for landscaping purposes] that might be found in No. Am. I also wish to get the ideas of the figure, coloration, work-ability, desirabliltiy of each of these woods.

To date, my quest for such a book or document has not been successfull. Oh yes, there are many books out there that talk of oak, walnut, maple, sycamor, and twenty more native No Am. trees. But is there any book that review many of the 100’s of the lessor known trees?

My goal would be to find a book that helps identify the tree. It would need to contain pictures of the mature tree, the bark, leaves, plus a cut showing the wood graining and figue. Additionally I would like to find the suitability of the wood for turning, boards, furniture, or other uses.

I have found some books that discuss a few varieties, but no work that treats many of the ‘Other’ trees and schrubs.

Can anyone direct me to such a book or work?

-- Rustfever, Central California

13 comments so far

View a1Jim's profile


117091 posts in 3575 days

#1 posted 12-29-2009 09:20 PM

The Two I can think of is” Identifying wood buy Bruce Hoadley” and Roy Underhill also has one

plus this web site

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View jlsmith5963's profile


297 posts in 3346 days

#2 posted 12-29-2009 10:21 PM

Seems to me your desire study trees from their beginning (in the landscape) to their end (stacked as boards in the lumber yard) actually requires bridging two fields that, strangely, don’t come in much contact with each other: Landscaping and woodworking. My guess is that you will need to develop resources in both fields to obtain all the information you want. To that end I offer the following to links:'s Tree Guide
Hearne Hardwoods Exotic Woods

-- criticism: the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of an artistic work...

View Karson's profile


35120 posts in 4398 days

#3 posted 12-29-2009 10:36 PM

The federal government has the Wood Handbook

It’s black and white but it studies all native hardwoods and some imports.

It’s a downloadable file to you computer.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View Karson's profile


35120 posts in 4398 days

#4 posted 12-29-2009 10:42 PM

Search for Gene Wengert

he is world renown on his wood studies. People send him pieces of wood and he used to identify them. he has written some books on the subjects.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View Daren Nelson's profile

Daren Nelson

767 posts in 3903 days

#5 posted 12-29-2009 11:07 PM

I used this link sometimes starting out, since I deal exclusively in urban forest lumber. I eventually got pretty good at ID without it…You are right there are cool non-native ornamentals to be found right in our own back yards.

View DannyBoy's profile


521 posts in 3863 days

#6 posted 12-29-2009 11:14 PM

I’ve always been a fan of this book:
Harvesting Urban Timber: A Guide to Making Better Use of Urban Trees

It is not only a good book for wood types, but also a how-to for this sort of thing.

-- He said wood...

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 3379 days

#7 posted 12-30-2009 12:34 PM

Now you’re speaking my language, Ira! This is what I’ve been doing through all of 2009 :) Be prepared for the most grueling ride. This is one field of study that is spread all over the world and back.

First know that the world of trees is VAST. North America certainly narrows it down a ton, but there are at the very least 100,000 species of trees in the world. I got that number from the IWCS – International Wood Collector’s society – yes, this is a real thing – and I believe it’s actually a low number after this year’s study. Definitely read their page on collecting wood for some insight into what you’re really asking here – A “Formidable Challenge” indeed. Btw, be careful in mocking their hobby. That’s what I did at first, and look what happened to me.

Jim has some great links in your first comment. I have both of Bruce R. Hoadley’s books – Identifying Wood, and Understanding Wood. These are tremendous resources. He’s a tree scientist from MIT, and probably knows more about what you’re asking than most people. His books include all manner of ways of identifying trees, from cutting sugar-cube sized pieces and steaming them, to creating microscope slides from shavings, and creating personal sample kits. He has microscopic end-grain views of over 100 species (still a drop in the bucket, sadly), and shows you how to understand what you’re even looking at, and what each tiny thing is called, which certainly helps. Jim mentioned Hobbit House – also a great resource, though despite his massive collection of rich imagery, he’s missing so much. It’s not his fault. There’s just that much out there. He doesn’t have paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia). He doesn’t have weeping bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis). He doesn’t have dozens of the species I’ve found in LA. Consider that there are 400+ species of oak alone. Lots of species look and behave similarly enough that you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. There are whole swaths of oaks considered red oaks, for instance, and a great deal of similarity between them.

Eucalyptus – everywhere in Australia and LA – will make your head spin. There are over 730 species, and you’ll note in my wikipedia link that most don’t have an entry there (red links = dead links). Good luck finding anything online for most of them. I’ve tried several times this year, looked for books on the subject, asked in a plant ID forum, and come up fairly dry. One trouble is that many of the species look like other ones at certain stages in their life, and the leaves take on a number of shapes through their life, always transforming. I had one limb from a wind-felled branch that had 6 different shapes of leaves on it, from lanceolate and falcate to obovate and inverse-cordate. The barks can transition from peeling and papery to smooth and uniform and back again. Even the flowers can fool you. They’re notoriously hard to figure out.

For Christmas this year I got the NWF Field Guide to the Trees of N. America, a great book, but again, there are just too many trees out there, and this is just a light cross section of N.A.’s trees, certainly not in-depth. I found an online page on palms once that had pictures and species names for over 50 species that I could click through. This book had a few spread over several pages. It has probably 30+ pages on oaks, but no pages anywhere of processed wood, and it’s a little mixed in what it shows from each tree – sometimes an extra picture of a bunch of leaves, sometimes not, etc. I’m in NJ with my folks for the holidays – oaks everywhere – and already I’ve found by the fallen leaves outside, and with the help of the book Chestnut Oak, Pin Oak, Southern Red Oak, and something that might be Black Oak, but then I’ve found a few that don’t match anything. There are far fewer than the 400+ oaks out there in the book, and many that are in there are not of this region (it has a little regional map with each that’s very helpful). Too, because it’s not a full list of every oak, I’m skeptical about the black oak, and even a little shaky on the Pin Oak. Maybe the leaves I found would match something not listed in the book even better, but I can’t know. I’d need a book at least this big just on oaks to really have good info on oaks in general, and then books for every other genus out there :(

Anyway, another good book I got for Christmas is The Woodbook: The Complete Plates. This is a very thick, hardcover, full color reproduction of Romeyn Beck Hough’s work between 1888 and 1913 publishing 14 volumes with actual 2” x 5” rectangles of veneer pieces (color prints in the book) cut from each of 3 directions through a total of well over 300 species of trees across a great number of taxonomic families. It’s gorgeous, and gives you a view into hundreds of woods at actual scale cut in the transverse (cross cut/end grain), radial (quartersawn), and tangential (plainsawn) planes. However, it has no photos of the trees, leaves, fruits, etc. It has a page on each – a few examples in the other pictures at the Amazon link – with a few paragraphs in 3 languages of each tree, species/family names, and on the plates you can see Hough’s original names, many of which are now out of date.

What this all really indicates – at least to me – is that there simply is no all-in-one place to go for this info. It’s a process of cross-checking things from many places, and digging hard. I’ve had forums trying to help me identify just one species of ash – here and another place – and we never really fully locked it down. Google searches galore really didn’t help much either. I’ve been saying for awhile now that there should be an iPhone app (and maybe I’d finally get a phone if there was one) that let scientists, researchers, bored college students, woodworkers, and enthusiastic newcomers like us add to a collective database. Over time it would get richer and thicker, and you could search by things like a photo of a leaf that gets broken down into an outline and matched against all known leaf profiles (many scanned in from every tree to cover the gamut of shapes each species can generate), and/or by region, and/or by bark type, and every other thing you could think of.

I could keep sending you info like the above for days, or weeks (I’ve been really engrossed in this hobby this year, up all night often tracking more things down), but let me point you to a fantastic resource that will probably end up helping you more than anything in the meantime: the UBC Plant ID Forum. As proof of my claim, here's a post wherein they picked off Koelreuteria bipinnata for me, and another one in which they steered me to Taxodium distichum, the bald cypress. Note that in both cases, Ron B made the call. He’s an ID machine. Michael F is also quite gifted. That forum is the one that helped me choose tree books for my Christmas wishlist this year :) Note that it is not a very talkative group. They like concise posts with clear images and often reply with just the genus, or genus and species, but I don’t think you’ll find a more solid online resource for unknown entities. They’re also a little fussy about posting too often, and prefer you to stack up images of various things in one post so they can rapid-fire off the names and move on. I just tend to space myself out over days or a week, because I like to have one species per post, with lots of rich images to go with it. I add those pages to my bookmarks per species, each sorted by genus.

Anyway, I’m sure we’ll talk much more about it later, if you’re interested. I sure am! Goodnight!

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View rustfever's profile


752 posts in 3308 days

#8 posted 12-31-2009 02:48 AM

1aJim, jlsmith, Karson, Darren, Dannyboy, & Gary.

Wow, Thanks for the information. This is just what I hoped I would find, never expecting to hit this type of an ‘El Dorado’.

I have already started looking into these. I have found a few of the books and am getting ready to whip out the PayPal and get them rolling my direction.

Yesterday, I was in a Desert Museum in Palm Springs. I was able to see and phot many of the desert trees of the Southwest. I also found two books in the museum store that I purchased. Both are good, but neither has anywhere near ‘All the information’.

Gary thanks for you information. I will be able to use your many resources to further my quest.

Thanks again LJ’s

-- Rustfever, Central California

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 3379 days

#9 posted 12-31-2009 03:59 AM

Awesome, Ira. You’re well on your way now. I’ll add a little more info, because my novel above wasn’t enough ;)

While the UBC, based on the west coast of Canada (they have a large natural gardens with scientists and everything) is a great place to get things identified, Dave's Garden is a really great site for actual info on these species. There are other places I end up, but I love DG for a couple of reasons. I usually see it in the google hits near the top for any species I look up, and click over there first. For one thing, using cedars (genus: cedrus) as an example, you can search the site for something vague, like a genus, and start seeing thumbnails right away.

Note in that list the quoted names appended to the end of many of the common names. These are often fanciful, and not scientific/Latin. These are cultivar designations. Cultivars are like dog breeds – plants botanists and hobbyists have invented by cross breeding and selectively breeding plants. You’ll get names like: Deodar Cedar ‘Kashmir’. The person who comes up with a new strain gets to name it. If you see an unquoted name or names after the species name, that’s usually who discovered and named the species, like: Quercus douglasii Hook. & Arn. Those are the guys who discovered and named the blue oak (aka mountain white oak). And those guys have been busy.

Another thing I love about Dave’s Garden is how much info is there. Users submit pictures, so you’ll have a lot of images usually from hospitable regions around the world. They also submit information about invasiveness, hardiness, ease of planting, how to cultivate, and much else, which I’ve used in an offshoot hobby – growing trees from the seeds I find while out studying trees. And my favorite bit of info the site has is an Info hotlink after the genus and species names that tells you not only how to pronounce them, but why they’re called what they’re called, which is one more nice piece of info to help me remember all of these scientific names.

Some more hints for your hunts:

Know your USDA Hardiness Zone! There are heat maps all over for this, and I recommend looking through lots of hits in google and google images, as you’ll end up stumbling on vats of information you don’t expect, but meanwhile, here's one. This mostly just indicates yearly minimum temp point across 12 regions, but ends up being a very good indicator of what can grow where. They’re currently working on a much more finely-tuned version of this old concept, possibly to be roled out in the next few years. Meanwhile, it’s a great way to look things up. I’m in 10b in west LA. I’ve found cool things just looking up stuff like ‘zone 10 trees,’ or ‘trees by hardiness zone.’

Another thing that’s very helpful is to search for trees by region, city, state, or county. Searches like “trees of LA,” “trees of los angeles,” “los angeles street tree,” and “west coast trees,” or changing LA to other west coast places (san bernardino, san jose, san francisco, etc) has sent me off on hours of great hits. This isn’t so much looking for a particular tree, but is great to give you a broad overview of what’s around you.

Dichotomous keys can help, sometimes, though most are pretty small. These are the ones with 2 or more choices, like “If your tree has needle-like leaves click here,” or “If your tree has broad, flat leaves, click here.” An example. These also come in winter varieties intended to help you ID plants with no leaves, flowers, or fruit on them. Even when I haven’t had something to ID, I’ve browsed through them just to see where trains of choices would lead. Really large DKs suffer from the inability to move past things you don’t know. If it’s not in bloom, and you hit a question about its flowers, you can’t answer properly, so you can’t progress through the game of 20 questions. This is where some online things I’ve found that give you all of the options laid out in a huge form, and you just check off whatever you know excel. You can find things like this looking for plant ID utilities, plant lookup tools, and so on.

A lot of universities have agricultural programs, and some have online tree ID systems intended to help you choose a tree for your property or street. Here's one from CalPoly, which lets you choose by attributes, so you can fill out a form with what you know and get a shortened list of what’s in their system. You may be able to use that to help get an idea for what you have if you’re in the area.

And so much more…
Best of luck!

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View rustfever's profile


752 posts in 3308 days

#10 posted 12-31-2009 07:49 AM

Darn-it Gary. I thought this was going to be a couple of hours extra work. You are making it to be a lfetime job!

Really tho….........I do thank you for your fantastic amount of great information. I now have months taken off of my quest.


-- Rustfever, Central California

View Jeison's profile


968 posts in 3105 days

#11 posted 12-31-2009 07:56 AM

That’s what I like about LJs, you don’t just get an answer, you get the whole damn encyclopedia, a cross referenced index, and fully annotated bibliography LOL! :D

-- - Jei, Rockford IL - When in doubt, spray it with WD-40 and wrap it with duct tape. The details will attend to themselves.

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 3379 days

#12 posted 12-31-2009 08:07 AM

I know Ira, I know :(

I thought the same thing – maybe a few weeks of looking around to learn what I felt I wanted to know. Then I learned how deep the rabbit hole went. Actually, I still have no idea. I’m still falling. It’s just unbelievable how much there is. Everything I’ve typed so far is just a little scratch on the surface.

Anyway, no more novels from me. I’m going to post some interesting things in my blog here soon – and in ongoing fashion – but not pages and pages of text :)

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View Occie gilliam's profile

Occie gilliam

505 posts in 3294 days

#13 posted 01-04-2010 03:06 AM

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