A Geography of State Trees

Article excerpt

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. …