What do you do when a mysterious tree starts growing in your backyard? How can you identify it? Should it just be cut down, or could it accidentally be a treasure that you didn’t know you had and didn’t plant yourself on purpose? These are the questions that I asked myself when I discovered a mysterious tree growing out of one of the containers in my backyard.
A few years ago, we noticed that there was a pretty tree growing in our backyard. It was among our berry plants, and we had not planted it there. Most importantly, we didn’t know what it was, or if it was valuable. Our best guess at the time was that it was a fragrant spring tree, also known as Chinese Mahogany, or toona sinensis. We thought that this plant grows as a weed here on Staten Island, and it looks quite similar to the tree in our backyard when it was young.
However, there is a problem with this assumption. While the fragrant spring tree is a valuable plant, with beautiful flowers and edible leaves with exceedingly high protein content, it might not be this plant, and we could poison ourselves eating it if it was not the fragrant spring. We also found that the fragrant spring does not grow as a weed here, and it is actually a different plant that is an invasive weed. Had it been the fragrant spring plant, it would have been a very valuable addition to our landscape, as it would have provided good food for us. It is beautiful as well, with dark pink branches and pretty pink flowers.
The problem was that there is a lookalike plant to this tree, the “Tree of Heaven” (or “Tree of Hell” depending on your outlook on it and whether you are trying to get rid of it or just leaving it as a weed in your yard). However, the Tree Of Heaven plant is not valuable in most senses. While it is an herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine for all kinds of ailments, including dysentery, diarrhea, and more, if you take just a little too much (just a bit more than 10 grams of it), you can die. Even less than that would give you a stomach ache, which is not what we wanted.
So, the adventure began to try to find out what the tree is. Part of the problem was that the tree had grown very tall in only a short number of years, and it started to shade our valuable blueberry and raspberry plants.
The first step in this adventure was to contact the Agricultural Society of New York. The lady I spoke with told me that they don’t help people identify plants, but that we should contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension, as they do, in fact, help people identify plants.
I checked the website for the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and started contacting their local offices. The phone for the Brooklyn office and the NYC office had permanently busy phones that day, so I started contacting other offices instead. I contacted the Kingston location, who advised me to send an email to Donna Crawford.
George, at the Kingston office, was the one who told me about the look-alike to the Fragrant Spring Tree, and made me aware of the Tree of Heaven, and its relative toxicity. Basically, he told me that there were no lookalikes that would kill me if I ate them, but would only give me a bad stomach ache.
As this was over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, I forgot about it until the following Monday, but I left messages at three different Coop offices at Cornell. On Monday, I was called back by Mary from the Sullivan County Cornell Cooperative Extension. She was very helpful, but was unfamiliar with the two trees in question, and referred me to the Orange County office, or to an arborist.
After that, I contacted the Orange County office of the CCE, since they have a tree specialist on staff. I left a message, and my call was returned by Eric, who was a tree expert. After discussing my concerns with him about the two different trees, and their edibility and toxicity, he advised that I contact the DEC office in my area, as they have a forester on staff.
This became my next step. As soon as I got off the phone with him, I contacted the DEC office and asked for the forester. I was again only able to leave a message, but so far all of my calls had been returned, so this did not concern me at all.
The next morning I received a call back from Tim Wenskus at the DEC, and he gave me his email address to send the photos of the tree to. I was quite surprised by his response, as he said it was definitely not a Tree of Heaven, and it wasn’t a Fragrant Spring Tree either. He said that he couldn’t see the buds well, but the photos appeared to represent a walnut tree. A walnut tree, of all things!
So, now I wanted to be even more certain. I contacted the arborist at Snug Harbor, who explained to me what the terminations were, and that this was the most important part of the tree to determine what it was. Unfortunately, the arborist never contacted me back regarding the photos, but his suggestions about the buds/terminations allowed me to send a photo of the buds to the DEC forester.
Upon his receipt of these photos, he concluded definitively that the tree is, in fact, a walnut tree. This is not quite good news, but it is also pretty amazing. According to websites I have found, germinating a walnut tree is incredibly difficult. You have to soak the walnuts to soften the hulls, then you have to plant them just before winter, since they need a wintering process in order to germinate. Then, finally, as they grow they are very delicate. Apparently, they are not as difficult to grow as these websites had suggested.
After looking on Google images and other websites for the black walnut tree, I found myself in agreement with the forester. Some of the images online exactly matched the pictures that I had taken of the tree, so the mystery was solved. I also crushed a leaf and smelled it, and it smelled exactly as a walnut tree leaf should, and nothing like gross peanut butter, which the Tree of Heaven is reputed to smell like.
The reason why this is not such good news is that walnut trees are a notorious shade tree, that grows extremely tall. The height of the tree is already over seven feet tall, and it’s only been growing for five years, with not a very thick trunk. Apparently the height it will get to is over 70 feet in height, with a very intricate and deep root system, and a very thick trunk. It also has poisonous roots and poisonous leaves, but the poison is not just for being eaten. It will prevent any other species of plant (except for black raspberry, which is growing right along with it) from growing next to or anywhere near it with its poisonous root system, and it will be another four to five years before it even begins to produce walnuts.
This has been an excellent and very interesting adventure, but unfortunately, the tree is likely to have to come down. I don’t like to cut down any trees, especially those that might have value, but this tree is not exactly valuable. It has already allowed a squirrel to reach a bird feeder that was placed very high and was previously inaccessible to him, and now he eats all of the seeds that we leave for the birds. In addition, it is shading all of the other plants in the garden, and it is not even at full height. It is possible that we will cut it back to a bonsai shape, removing almost all of the branches, and see if it still thrives, but most likely we will be cutting it down.
All in all, it was a very unexpected adventure in tree identification, with a surprise twist ending. Who would have thought that a black walnut tree would spontaneously grow in the backyard with little or no care from us, aside from watering it along with the other plants? Certainly not me, but I am happy to have made the discovery, requiring persistence and many phone calls. Now that I know, an informed decision can be made about the tree.