By Jean Cox, VP of Friends of Pinchgut Creek
Trussville is home to many beautiful natural treasures including acres of beautiful forest in our parks and recreation complex. If you have ever wandered down the trails where the greenway ends you have walked through my favorite part of our little suburban forest. The banks of the Cahaba River in that area are lined with big fat Sycamores and towering Tulip-Poplars. If you adventure uphill from the floodplain you will find White Oaks, Ash, and several species of Red Oak. In a few months, inquiring minds are going to have a new way to learn about the trees in those woods. Friends of Pinchgut Creek has partnered with Alabama Scenic River Trail, The Cahaba River Society and others to create a beautiful educational experience, The Cahaba River Tree Trail. The trail will have signed trees with a supporting website containing a wealth of tree information.
Step one to laying out the trail was to identify the trees and plan the route, which would have been simple. But Hickory trees are all over those woods and they are a complicated family. While I’m no expert, I do consider myself fairly knowledgeable about trees and I’m pretty great at playing “Name that Tree”. But it didn’t take long for me to call for backup to help figure out all the different Hickories our trail.
Back in the Spring I called Katie Wiswall, our state Urban Forester and Henry Hughes, everyone’s favorite tree expert. Katie came out with a team of foresters and Henry came out on a different day with his tremendous patience and multiple books. This dream team could still not positively determine the species of all these hickories. We all spent what felt like an eternity counting leaflets until our necks were all stiff from staring at the sky. Without nuts on the ground, we were still stumped on a couple. The problem is, we have over half of the Hickory species that live in Alabama on our ¾ mile trail. Shagbark are easy to spot as they live up to their name. However, trying to determine the difference between Butternut and a Water Hickory is a much different game that comes down to tiny details. I learned on those hikes that hickory trees can also breed with each other and produce mutts, hickory-57s, or crossbreeds. So, some of them just simply can’t be positively identified.
I wanted to see if we could identify a couple more after the nuts fell. So, last week I headed out there again. This time with Katie, Henry and our new Jefferson County forester, Tim Roberts. It’s always fun hiking in the woods with super smart people. We were able to determine our biggest and most impressive Hickory is a Pignut, and with the help of our new forester we identified a Bitternut down in the floodplain. The nuts and leaflets of the Bitternut Hickory are similar to other varieties. One discernible difference is Bitternut lives up to it’s name with a powerful bitter taste. In the name of science, and without
I’m happy that we will now have several beautiful Hickory varieties marked on the tree trail when it is completed this Spring. I hope that one day you will enjoy hiking the trail we are working on. When you do, if you are tempted to forage for hickory nuts, you might want to steer clear of the hickories in the Bitternut grove on the floodplain. Stick to the Shagbark nuts up on the hillsides. They are actually really delicious, maybe even more so than their close cousin the pecan. If you are trying to determine which tree the nuts fell from, follow this bit of wisdom from Henry Hughes: “Nuts always roll downhill, never uphill” .