Thursday, October 4, 2012

How to Read Bark Scars in Sourwood Trees

Sourwood trees are among the first to turn colors in the Fall.
The sourwood trees in our outdoor classroom are the first to put on their fall colors for the season.  Sourwoods are wonderful, smallish trees with beautiful foliage and interesting bark.  They are named for the sour taste of their leaves, which you can experience if you touch a bit of torn leaf to your tongue.  The leaves contain oxalic acid, which tastes pleasantly sour (all acids taste sour).  Tasting the leaf is not harmful, but the leaves are not considered edible and shouldn't be eaten.
The small orange-leaved tree in the picture is one of our sourwoods.
We have two sourwood trees.  Above you can see the location of one sourwood - it's the orange-leaved small tree in the center of the picture.  See if you can find the second sourwood tree when you visit the classroom.
Lenticels in young bark of the sourwood tree.
Sourwood bark is wonderful - it has so many visible features that give clues to what the tree is doing and what it has gone through during the tree's life.  A lot of people think tree bark is a dead part of the tree, but the opposite is true: tree bark is a living, important tree tissue that changes as trees grow.  Bark is mostly responsible for moving sugars (a tree's food, made from photosynthesis) between the leaves and roots.  Bark is filled with phloem tubes for transporting the sugar.  The above picture of a young twig contains tiny spots called lenticels.  Lenticels are tiny holes in the bark to allow air to get into and out of the inner tissues of the twig.  Compare the above twig to the one below.
Sourwood twig with cicada damage.
The twig in the picture above is about the same age as the one in the previous picture, but something looks wrong!  This giant gash in the bark is the healed wound cut into the bark by one of last year's cicadas.  Cicadas cut into young bark and lay their eggs in the gash where the developing offspring can feed on tree sap.  The living bark responds by slowly growing a scar to heal the wound and seal off the wood, which is what you see above.  
Older twig with young bark splitting as the twig grows larger.
Bark naturally stretches and tears and re-heals to allow tree twigs and trunks to increase in girth.  The twig above shows the first tears in young bark as the twig is getting thicker through the years.  The stretch marks get bigger as the tree gets bigger, and large branches and trunks might have deep furrows in the bark.
Scar from where a branch broke off the tree.
When branches fall off or are broken off, the bark around the broken area swells up and heals over the scar.  The scar above looks like a pretty big scar, so I suspect the branch that used to grow here was torn off unevenly.  Notice the larger tears in the normal bark above and below the branch scar.
Large gash in bark that is healing over - possibly damage from planting the tree.
Here is an even bigger scar from some major damage to the trunk.  Something cut into the bark of this tree.  Perhaps it was damaged as it was being transported or planted here.  Such an injury can weaken or kill a tree, because it can let diseases into the tree, just like a wound in our skin can become infected.  I wish more people realized this so they wouldn't carve their initials into trees' bark.  Nevertheless, this tree appears to be healing from its damage.  You can see exposed wood through the gash in this bark.  If the wound to this tree were to have cut through the bark all the way around the tree, the tree would have died, since the bark would be unable to move sugars up and down the tree.  Plant managers who need to kill trees use this technique - it's called girdling a tree.

Check out the bark on our sourwood trees and look for lenticels, branch scars, normal tears in the bark, and possible injuries to the bark.  Then take a look at other types of trees and see if you can read the scars in the bark.  Can you tell where branches used to be?  Can you see how the bark split at the tree got bigger?
Click to zoom in and see how the leaf veins connect.
When you check out the bark on our sourwoods, be sure to look at the leaves too.  Sourwood leaf veins are large, and it's easy to see the network of how the veins connect.  Also be sure to look for the remnants of flowers, now turning into fruits, at the ends of some of the branches. 


  1. Tasting the sourwood reminded me of something that happened to me as a child. I was learning of dinosaurs and their diets in school and learned that they liked to eat leaves, I, as an ignorant child thought 'if they can, why can't I?' And stuck a few leaves in my mouth and decided to chomp chomp. It wasn't a wise idea. Loved the post, god bless.

    -Tony Salmeron

    1. Great story! Here in TN, sourwoods are kind of rare, so I bet kids wouldn't learn about sourwood taste on their own. I had a similar experience with acorns after reading that Native Americans ate them. I assumed they liked bitter foods until I learned more later!