An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Oak Leaf Shapes & Sizes

11-15-16-oak-leaves-049a1752There are roughly 90 species of oak trees in North America, several of which can be found in New England. (Eastern White, Northern Red, Eastern Black, Burr, Common Chinkapin, Swamp White, Pin, Chestnut, Bear, Scarlet and Common Post). When identifying oaks, several characteristics, such as buds, bark, branching pattern and leaves, can be used. Most Northeastern species of oak have lobed leaves, with the lobes deep or shallow, pointed or rounded.

One thing all oak leaves have in common is their variability. Even on a single tree, you can find leaves of widely differing shapes. One reason for this is that the amount of sunlight that reaches them affects their shape.   Leaves that are shaded are not only often larger than those that are bathed in sunshine, but their lobes are far more shallow. Both of these traits maximize the intake of sunlight.   Canopies of oaks have a larger proportion of small, deeply-lobed leaves than lower down on the trees, where you can often find relatively large leaves that appear to lack lobes completely. The two pictured leaves come from the same Northern Red Oak.  Can you tell where on the tree they probably grew? (Thanks to Penny March for post idea and leaves.)

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Witch-hazel Cone Gall Aphids Laying Eggs

10-26-16-witch-hazel-gall-s20161017_5388At this time of year there is a species of aphid, Hormaphis hamamelidis, that is laying eggs on Witch-hazel branches. Next spring female aphids will hatch out of these eggs and begin feeding on newly-emerged Witch-hazel leaves. The aphids inject the leaf with a substance that causes the leaf to form a cone-shaped growth, or gall, around the insect, providing it with both food and shelter. The galls are hollow, and have openings extending out through the leaves’ lower surfaces. Within the galls the unmated female aphids produce 50 – 70 young. Eventually the galls fill with winged female aphids which emerge through the cone openings, disperse, and repeat the process. The third generation of aphids consists of both males and females which mate and lay their eggs on Witch-hazel. The aphids that hatch from these eggs create the conical galls found on Witch-hazel leaves.

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Abscission Layers Forming


As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, cells near where a leaf’s stem joins a tree’s branch start to divide rapidly. This is the start of the creation of the corky layer of cells known as the abcission layer.

The annual growth of a tree ends with the formation of the abcission layer. This layer prevents the transport of materials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch and it blocks the flow of minerals from the roots into the leaves. Chlorophyll, critical to the process of photosynthesis, breaks down with exposure to light and is replaced continually by the leaves during the summer. When the abcission layer forms, this is no longer possible.  The chlorophyll slowly breaks down and disappears, revealing the underlying xanthophylls (yellow pigments) and carotenoids (orange pigments) that the chlorophyll was masking. These pigments, in addition to the red pigments (anthocyanins) that are manufactured from sugars trapped in the leaf, provide us with our brilliant foliage.

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Early Splashes of Maroon

10-6-16-white-ash-leaves-20161005_4124At this time of year, our eyes are immediately drawn to the brilliant orange, red and yellow pigments of Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) leaves. However, there’s much to be said about the less flamboyant splashes of color adorning some of the species of trees that provide New England’s spectacular fall foliage. One such subtley-colored fall tree that often grows in upland forests along with Sugar Maples is White Ash (Fraxinus americana). One of the first trees to change color in autumn, White Ash can turn shades of yellow, orange and red, but deep red, maroon and purple are typically the grand finale of this species. Often its leaves progress from green to yellow and eventually maroon.  While it might not be the first tree that catches your eye, make a point of looking for its colorful, compound leaves – you won’t be disappointed.

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Woolly Oak Leaf Gall

11-28-14  woolly oak leaf gall IMG_3574Of the 2,000 kinds of galls found on North American plants, 800 different kinds form on oaks. One of these is the woolly oak leaf gall, produced by a tiny Cynipid wasp, Callirhytis lanata. This gall is usually attached to the mid-vein on the underside of an oak leaf, and looks like a ball of wool. It may be as large as three-fourths of an inch and is often bright pink or yellow in color, fading to light brown in the fall. Oak trees have lots of tannic acid in them (a defense which makes the tree unpalatable to herbivores), with the highest concentration found in oak galls. (The bitter taste is where the name “gall” originated.) It’s possible, since tannins are somewhat anti-microbial, high-tannin galls such as the woolly oak leaf gall may protect the larva against fungi and bacteria.

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Goldenrod Bunch Gall

goldenrod bunch gall 144Galls are abnormal plant growths that are caused by a number of agents, including insects. Each gall-making insect has a specific host plant and location (leaf, stem, bud) on which it lays its eggs in the spring, during the growing season. The egg-laying and/or hatching and chewing of the larva causes the plant to react by forming a growth around the insect. Galls of different species of insects vary in their shape and the gall maker can often be identified as a result of this.

Goldenrods are host to about 50 species of gall-making insects, two-thirds of which are midges, or tiny flies. Goldenrod Bunch Galls, also called Rosette Galls, are the result of an egg being laid in the topmost leaf bud of Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis by a midge in the genus Rhopalomyia, often Rhopalomyia solidaginis. The stem of the goldenrod stops growing, but the leaves don’t. The resulting rosette of leaves provides shelter and food for the midge larva, as well as a host of other insects, including other midges. Adult Goldenrod Bunch Gall midges emerge from the galls in the fall, and females lay eggs in the soil. The larvae hatch within one to two weeks and spend the winter underground, emerging in the spring to start the cycle all over again. Interestingly, Rhopalomyia solidaginis lays all male or all female eggs, one or the other.

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February 14th

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