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A geography of state trees.

There's a lot of history, natural and otherwise, in these sound-bite portraits of the trees symbolizing each of the 50 states.

If, like many people, your reading preferences lean toward a mix of intrigue, poignance, and wry politics, you might reach for the likes of a Tom Clancy novel. Next time you feel the urge, reach for the door instead, and head outside into an adventure of your own--call it "the hunt for state trees."

By state trees I mean the species adopted by individual states as a representative symbol. Each state has one--a total of 37 varieties, ignoring the nuances of subspecies. While some are native to a particular region, many can be found in your town, neighborhood, or even your own yard. My front yard contains two--the red maple (Rhode Island) and the tuliptree, also known as the yellow poplar or tulip-poplar (Indiana and Tennessee)--although my home state's flowering dogwood (Missouri) is missing.

This desire to identify with trees is nothing new; people through the ages have been fascinated by their green neighbors. Native Americans imbued trees with mystical powers. Farther back, Druids considered the oak tree--and the mistletoe attached to it--sacred. The name of the Celtic revelers derives from the Greek word for oak, drus. The Druids also started the tradition of displaying evergreen branches at the northern hemisphere's winter solstice.

And although tree worship is a custom long past, we still take great pride in our state's choice of a symbol. You often can learn something about the history of a state by reading how it chose its representative tree.

The most popular state tree? Sugar maple and white oak, each the choice of four states, if you assume Iowans meant white oak when they designated the unspecific "oak" as their state tree. The first to designate a state tree? Texas, the 28th state to join the union, was the first to embrace an arboreal symbol, adopting the pecan on May 20, 1919. By 1927, the Texas legislature had passed a law instructing state agencies to include it in beautification efforts.

Interested? Read through the following list, then head outdoors and start looking. When you recognize a symbol, you'll see a reflection of the spirit and sentiments of the early citizens of your or another state. It'll help you understand one of the many pieces in the mosaic of the United States. Tom Clancy can wait.

ALABAMA: southern pine (Pinus palustris), designated in 1949. By "southern," Hugh Kaul--the legislator who introduced the state tree bill--explained that he meant "longleaf." Before laboratory production made the natural products obsolete, turpentine and rosin were extracted from this tree and used in great quantities by the navy.

ALASKA: Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), designated in 1962. At one time an important source of wood for aircraft, the Sitka spruce is restricted to loamy soils along the southern coast. It probably takes its name from a Tlingit word meaning "place."

ARIZONA: Paloverde (Cercidium torreyanum), also known as green-barked acacia, designated in 1954. This desert dweller is able to photosynthesize in its bark, which reduces both the need for leaf area and the risk of desiccation.

ARKANSAS: shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata), designated in 1939. The specific epithet literally means "hedgehog," and the etymology of "pine" coincides with "pain." An important source of timber, this resilient tree can send up new shoots from the root if its other parts are destroyed by fire.

CALIFORNIA: two species of redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens and Sequoiadendron gigantea), designated in 1937. Redwoods and California seem inexorably linked, even though the giant trees once had a distribution that took them at least as far east as Arizona. Now the trees are restricted to the West Coast, in places where sea fog is the norm. The name sequoia comes from the Cherokee chief Sequoyah, who invented a syllabary for his language.

COLORADO: blue spruce (Picea pungens), designated in 1939. The tree reigns at intermediate latitudes in the Rockies, but it's known far beyond that realm because of its ornamental use.

CONNECTICUT: white oak (Quercus alba), designated in 1947. The white oak provided colonial builders with hardwood for homes, ships, and furniture. The dense wood weighs up to 48 pounds per square foot, dried. Native Americans and early settlers ate the acorns, but never in sufficient quantities to threaten the species. The most famous white oak was Hartford, Connecticut's Charter Oak, where the charter for that colony was hidden for a time in 1687 to keep it from Edmund Andross, a second for James, Duke of York, who was keen to rescind colonial rights.

DELAWARE: American holly (Ilex opaca), designated in 1939. Holly grows along the coastal plain from Massachusetts to Florida and in the Mississippi River Valley. Interest in its ornamental features dates to early England. Seasonally inspired collectors in the U.S. greatly reduced populations in parts of the tree's range, and some municipalities put it under protection.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), designated in 1960. The tree's serrated, bright-red autumn leaves earn it a place in ornamental plantings.

FLORIDA: sabal palmetto palm (Sabal palmetto), designated in 1953. After the legislature named this species as state tree, it quickly added the caveat ". . . should not be construed to limit use for commercial purposes." "Palmetto" comes from the Italian version of the original Spanish diminutive for "little palm."

GEORGIA: live oak (Quercus virginiana), designated in 1937. The Edmund Burke Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution introduced the live oak as a candidate for state tree. Early Georgia settlers used it to build homes.

HAWAII: candlenut (Aleurites moluccana)--kukui, designated in 1959. The Polynesians introduced the tree to the islands. Nuts can be eaten or burned for light, and they provide oil, dyes, gum, and a laxative. The species belongs to the spurge family, a group of valuable oil-producing trees from eastern Asia.

IDAHO: western white pine (Pinus monticola), designated in 1935. Its high resin content yields warp-resistent doors and window frames. At one time, the tree was an important source of wooden matches.

ILLINOIS: white oak (Quercus alba), designated in 1973. See Connecticut.

INDIANA: tuliptree or yellow poplar or tulip-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), designated in 1931. The tallest among the eastern hardwoods, its wood takes readily to glue, and to furniture. Both the large yellow and green flowers and the leaves of the tree are tulip-shaped.

IOWA: the generic oak (Quercus sp.), designated in 1961. It's usually assumed they mean the white oak (Quercus alba). See Connecticut.

KANSAS: cottonwood (Populus deltoides), designated in 1937. Cottonwoods were partners to the pioneers: The trees revealed the presence of streams, and they grew easily and quickly. Native Americans used the roots to start friction fires, and might (according to legend) have seen a teepee design in a hand-rolled leaf.

KENTUCKY: coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus), designated in 1976. The largely ornamental tree favors rich soil. Although pioneers might have tried its beans as a coffee substitute, there is no evidence anyone committed to the bitter beverage.

LOUISIANA: baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), designated in 1963. The "knees" make these trees unmistakable. Cypress swamps were once the exquisite habitats of now-extinct ivory-billed woodpeckers.

MAINE: eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), designated in 1959. The tree is an easy one to identify because it is the only pine with long needles in bundles of five. Tolerant of impoverished soils, the white pine was once a source of mast timber. In colonial days, a fine was imposed for cutting the species on public land, and surveyors for the king of England marked trees with an "R" or broad arrow to warn against cutting.

MARYLAND: white oak (Quercus alba), designated in 1941. See Connecticut.

MASSACHUSETTS: American elm (Ulmus americana), designated in 1941. It was chosen before the 1950s invasion of bark beetles, hapless creatures that transmit a debilitating, and almost always lethal, fungus to the elm. The tree's compelling beauty--its vigorously arched limbs resemble a fine, enormous goblet--contrasts with its uncertain future.

MICHIGAN: eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), designated in 1955. See Maine.

MINNESOTA: red pine (Pinus resinosa), also known as Norway pine, designated in 1953. The specific descriptor aside, the wood is not very resinous.

MISSISSIPPI: magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), designated in 1938. The tree is a grandaddy among flowering plants; some members of the magnolia family appear in fossils dating back 70 million years. The genus was named for Peter Magnol (1638-1715), a professor of botany at Montpellier.

MISSOURI: flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), designated in 1955. The tree yields exceptionally hard and heavy wood, weighing in at more than 50 pounds per square foot. It finds its way into golf clubs, engraver's blocks, and skewers. Cornus, derived from the Latin word for horn, refers to the strength of the wood. Dogwood in the U.S. is corrupted presumably from dagwood in England, and "dag" has the same root word as dagger.

MONTANA: ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), designated in 1949. Only Douglas-fir exceeds it for numbers standing and numbers used in the U.S. Ponderosa pine, which fills the nation's lowest-elevation and most drought-resistant pine forests, contributes wood to everything from caskets to window frames.

NEBRASKA: cottonwood (Populus deltoides), designated in 1972. See Kansas.

NEVADA: singleleaf pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla), designated in 1953. The seeds--pinus nuts--were a staple for Native Americans.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: white birch (Betula papyrifera), designated in 1947. Native Americans used the tree to make snow-shoes and paddles. In hard times, the underbark substituted for flour and the sap became a beverage. The exfoliating bark makes the tree easy to identify.

NEW JERSEY: red oak (Quercus rubra), designated in 1950. The state in 1951 designated the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) as a memorial tree.

NEW MEXICO: pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), designated in 1948. Sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors noted Native Americans eating pinyon nuts. The New Mexico Federation of Women's Clubs persuaded legislators to choose pinyon over its close contender, aspen.

NEW YORK: sugar maple (Acer saccharum), designated in 1956. Native Americans taught French settlers how to make sugar and syrup from its sap, and potash from the trees became an important export from the colonies to Europe.

NORTH CAROLINA: Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata), designated in 1963. See Arkansas.

NORTH DAKOTA: American elm (Ulmus americana), designated in 1947. See Massachusetts.

OHIO: Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), designated in 1953. The seed resembles the eye of a buck ("hetuck" to Native Americans), and the state name seems preferable to the alternative "stinking buckeye." The poisonous seeds once were the source of a library paste that repels book-eating insects. The tree ranges through the Ohio River Valley.

OKLAHOMA: redbud (Cercis canadensis), also known as Judas-tree, designated in 1937. According to myth, Judas hanged himself on an Asian species of this exquisite tree. The tree, which was white, blushed red in shame.

OREGON: Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), designated in 1939. As recently as 50 years ago, Douglas-fir covered 55,000 square miles of western Oregon and Washington. Coveted for their lumber, the fir forests have sparked well-known controversies. The tree was named for the 19th century botanical explorer David Douglas.

PENNSYLVANIA: eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), designated in 1931. Once used for 17th and 18th century settlers' cabins, hemlock was a good source of tannin for tanning leather soles when shoe producers thrived in the Keystone State. Because the tree tops point to the east away from the direction of prevailing winds--westerly across most of the tree's range--some label eastern hemlock a "natural compass."

RHODE ISLAND: red maple (Acer rubrum), designated in 1964. It might be the best-known tree in the country, with leaves that turn vivid orange or red in the fall.

SOUTH CAROLINA: palmetto tree (Inodes palmetto), designated in 1939. In the Revolutionary War, the tree was used to build colonial forts.

SOUTH DAKOTA: Black Hills spruce (Picea glauca densata), a subspecies of white spruce, designated in 1947. Northern plains tribes of Native Americans used the pliable roots of the white spruce to lace canoes and baskets. They readied roots by exposing them to steam from hot wood ash and then soaking them in hot water.

TENNESSEE: tuliptree, or yellow poplar or tulip-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), designated in 1947. See Indiana.

TEXAS: pecan (Carya illinoensis), designated in 1919. This walnut-family member does not grow successfully north of about 43 degrees latitude. Its deep roots contribute to its long life and great vigor.

UTAH: blue spruce (Picea pungens), designated in 1933. See Colorado.

VERMONT: sugar maple (Acer saccharum), designated in 1949. See New York.

VIRGINIA: flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) designated in 1956. See Missouri.

WASHINGTON: western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), the largest of the hemlocks, designated in 1947. Its pulpwood lends a substance (alpha cellulose) to cellophane, rayon yarns, and plastics. Native Americans made a bread from the inner bark.

WEST VIRGINIA: sugar maple (Acer saccharum), designated in 1949. See New York.

WISCONSIN: sugar maple (Acer saccharum), designated in 1949. See New York.

WYOMING: cottonwood (Populus sargentii) designated in 1947. See Kansas.

Diane M. Calabrese is a Columbus, Missouri, entomologist and writer.
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Title Annotation:states and their tree symbols
Author:Calabrese, Diane M.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:2155
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