It’s springtime, which means you’re probably spending some time outside gazing at the green glory of The Natural State. A delightful new book published by The Ozark Society will help you gaze eruditely. “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Arkansas,” authored by several preeminent plant experts in the state — Johnnie Gentry, Jennifer Ogle and Theo Witsell — is the essential field guide to trees in Arkansas (or technically and more broadly of woody plants, including trees and other perennials with durable shoots that survive winter). It’s 536 pages, but relatively compact, so it’ll easily fit in a backpack. Buy it at ozarksociety.net or at WordsWorth in Little Rock.
My 10-year-old son is obsessed with trees, so we own many tree guides, but none is as comprehensive or as thoughtfully arranged as this book. Each species gets a granular description — of bark, twig, fruit, flower — along with info on its habitat, a small state map that shows its county-level distribution and multiple pictures. That’s another thing that sets this guide apart: There are more than 1,500 photos, which greatly aid in identification, no matter the season.
The book is invaluable from a practical perspective if you, for instance, want to be able to distinguish between white and red oaks. In my house, it answered a long family debate, mostly between my son and himself, of whether our backyard tree is a northern red oak or its close cousin, Shumard oak (it’s the latter). But for those who want to go beyond identification, the authors provide invaluable context on ecoregions, habitats and basic botany. Spend some time with this book and you’ll soon be able to predict the sorts of trees you’re likely to find depending on where in Arkansas you are.
Here are some sample tidbits from the guide:
- Cypress trees are Arkansas’s largest woody plant. Many live to be more than 1,000 years old.
- Diospyros, the genus that persimmon trees (Diospyros virginiana) are part of, loosely translated means “fruit of the gods.” The tree’s ripe fruit is prized by man and beast, but, according to the authors, “unripe fruit is highly astringent, and getting unsuspecting people to bite into one is a favorite trick among pranksters of all ages, especially dads.”
- Speaking of fruit, the book describes the flavor range of the pawpaw as “sweet, tangy, luscious, or nauseating.” Pollinating flies and beetles are drawn to pawpaws by flowers, “which resemble decaying flesh in both color and fragrance. Commercial pawpaw growers sometimes hang dead animals among the trees to draw in more potential pollinators.”
- The leaves of the beauty-berry, a shrub that produces pink to pale purple flowers and is found across the state aside from parts of Northwest and Northeast Arkansas, repel mosquitoes when rubbed on your skin.
- The thorns of the honey locust, which can grow to more than 15 inches in length, are thought to have developed to protect it from long extinct Pleistocene megafauna, such as ground sloths.
- A sampling of the poetry of some of the names, or common names, of species you’ll find in the book: leatherleaf mahonia, bottomland dewberry, Grancy gray-beard, maiden bush, bladdernut, Carolina moon-seed, climbing dogbane, frost grape, Chinese flame tree, hairy frosted hawthorn, hearts-a-bustin’-with-love, hop-hornbeam, clammy locust, bastard oak, bog-raisin, sweet autumn virgin’s bower, toothache tree.