Tree Bark Talk

By Sarah Lord

When the leaves are gone, identifying trees can be difficult. While damaged bark hurts most trees, or is a symptom that pests have the upper hand, exfoliant bark peels and sheds naturally. It is abandoned skin as the tree grows.

Can you identify these mottled-bark Bolton Hill trees? 

Our Crape Myrtles (1) are small, multi-stemmed summer ornamentals. The Chinese elm (2) is medium-sized; its cousin the Japanese Zelcova (3) grows 70-80 feet in height. Sycamores (4) in the wild can reach 100 feet.

This time of year we are grateful to the exfoliants, which add winter interest to our streets.

Local Color: Zelkova Serrata

Remarkable Trees of BHBy Sarah Lord

As we face forward to winter, memories of an unusually late fall remain.

In the drought, ginkgo trees dropped green leaves—and also golden ones after overdue rain. 

Japanese maples were hot as chili peppers and red maples glowed like neon. 

A single zelkova could put you in mind of a whole box of Jujyfruits.

Zelkova serrata entered our lives following the demise of the glorious American elm, Ulmus americana. Dutch elm disease ineluctably destroyed Baltimore’s most stately shade tree, planted in the early 1900s and admired for its elegant vase shape.

To replace it landscapers picked a southern European cousin in the elm family Ulmaceae, native also to Japan, Korea and eastern China. Its vase shape is a bit cluttered in comparison to Ulmus Americana, and the tree does not match its counterpart in grace. Nonetheless, zelkovas line Mt. Royal Avenue quite handsomely and their exfoliating trunks are visually interesting in wintertime.

The Humble But Useful Silver Maple

Remarkable Trees of BHMaples abound in Bolton Hill. In wetter cooler autumns, red maple varieties offer up their pleasing blaze of rouge. The invasive Norway maple is a hardy urban tree, but with duller fall color; it is disliked because it “takes over” and is stingy in benefits to our native wildlife. 

Also no showboat in the fall, the leaves of the silver maple (Acer saccharinum) turn a pale yellowish. Nonetheless I am very fond of an Acer saccharinum (not to be confused with the universally admired Acer sacchrum – sugar maple) up the alleyways from Johns Street Park. It is two-trunked and massive enough to shade four or five houses from our boiling summer heat. 

Nonetheless I am very fond of a neighborhood Acer saccharinum, towering above an alleyway off of John Street Park. It is two-trunked and massive enough to shade four or five houses from our boiling summer heat. 

This is a shambling, generous tree, with rough bark and rounded buds and seeds useful to squirrels and birds when other food is scarce. As early as February, it is important to my honeybees trying to make it through winter.

Native Americans used its wood for basket-making and furniture, and its sweet sap for bread-making and in medicine. The Mohegans used an infusion of bark taken from the south-facing side of these trees to make cough medicine.

Then as now, when the wind blows through its foliage, its green leaves ripple, showing their gray undersides. The canopy’s silvery effect is transporting. 

Bolton Hill’s Champion Trees

Remarkable Trees of BHWhen the National Forest Service was in its infancy, Maryland hired its first state arborist, Fred Besley, who was the third state forester in the entire US. In 1906 this was still a new concept—the idea that states should care for their timber assets rather than eradicate trees that had existed on the continent for millennia.

Besley created a tree-measuring formula that became standard throughout the nation. Citizens started working to save our biggest, oldest trees, even in the face of their industrial value.

Today, Maryland, like many states, has a Notable Tree Registry. Our Registry was developed by John Bennett and a cadre of statewide forestry boards volunteers. You can find more than 1750 notable trees in 23 counties and Baltimore City listed on the Notable Tree Registry (NB: the list is always a work-in-progress.)

Bolton Hill has two trees on the list. One is the marvelously massive English walnut, Juglans regia, in Jenkins Alley behind 1325 Bolton Street. Fred Chalfont and Ray Iturralde put me right after I misidentified this tree as a Black walnut in August’s Bulletin.

Ray and Fred are volunteers on the Baltimore City Forestry Board and are among those searching out and measuring Baltimore’s notable trees.

In contrast, Bolton Hill’s second, brand-new City champion is almost comically small. The larger of a pair of plucky live oaks—so-called because they retain their green leaves over winter—at 225 W. Lanvale Street, this is a sidewalk tree outside Sallye Perrin and John von Briesen’s house.

Quercus virginiana legendarily dominates southern cities like Savannah, Georgia. Climate change may allow these trees to survive in Baltimore.

Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia

crape myrtle
Crape myrtle in bloom.

Since July Lagerstroemia’s long-lasting, clustered blossoms have made summer gardens of our streets. White, mauve, raspberry, plum—the Victorian shades of these small trees’ flowers suit Bolton Hill. 

But all good things come to an end: in September their colors fast fade away.

The flowers are “perfect,” meaning they contain both female and male parts. Native to Asia, Lagerstroemia have decorated our southern landscapes since 1790, when French botanist Andre Michaux brought them to Charleston, SC.

The leaves are opposite each other on the twig, and “simple” with “entire” margins: meaning the leaf is not lobed and its edges are smooth rather than serrated. Honeybees and pollinating wasps are attracted to the bright generous flowers and to the residue left from crape myrtle aphid activity. Ladybugs keep the aphids in check.

Next, the leaves will give us nice fall color—but nothing so splendid as the sherbets shades of summer. And finally, all that will be left will be the mottled, smooth bark, which provides interest throughout the winter.

Black Walnut, Jenkins Alley

Black walnut, Jenkins Alley
Looking up into the black walnut at Jenkins Alley.

Now here’s a memorable tree living among us: the towering black walnut of Jenkins Alley, which shades the rear side of the almost equally towering Brown Memorial Church. It has BGE wires strung across it like guitar strings.

In its lifetime it’s sung many a song, like the ballad of Judge Tom Ward wrestling a burglar to the ground under its boughs.Its trunk measures a whopping 161 inches around, which may be a record here in Bolton Hill.

Juglans nigra is desirable both for its tasty nut and for its easily worked, deep brown wood. Its leaves are deciduous, alternate and “compound”—that is, each stem has many, rather than single, leaves, which alternate from left to right as you go down the stem rather than being arranged opposite each other in pairs. These leaves yellow and fall as the weather turns cold.The Eastern black walnut is monoecious, meaning that in spring it displays both male and female flowers, taking the form of inconspicuous green catkins. They arrive on separate spikes, typically the females first. However, the tree does not self-pollinate, relying instead on wind and the presence of other walnut trees for propagation.

Even for the mightiest among us, it takes a village.

The American Beech: That’s One Tall Tree!

By Sarah Lord

Stroll along the shaded sidewalk of West Lanvale Street and you’ll find that east of Park Avenue the tallest tree is a multi-branched American beech, nearing 50 ft. in height.

Slow-growing and happy in mixed forests where it rises to twice that height, Fagus grandifolia is native to eastern north America as far north as Canada and as far south as Florida.

American beech
American beech tree at 157 W. Lanvale St.

Its bark is silver-gray and distinctively smooth as skin. Its ovate leaves have a pointed tip, with side leaf veins off the midrib that are always parallel, each having its own point. The triangular nut, somewhat bitter to human tastes (and by the way, not used to make chewing gum), is a favorite of our city squirrels.

This particular Fagus grandifloria at 157 W Lanvale Street lost its main leader—the central “stalk” of the tree— more than fifty years ago, so now it resembles a sturdy hand reaching for the sky.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And, as occurs commonly with the growth pattern of this species, its trunk seems to have eyes that gaze back at you.

Editors’ note: Sarah Lord and Lee Tawney will be chronicling the grand trees of Bolton Hill in future issues of the Bulletin. Please email suggestions to Sarah at

Help Trees Help Us

This tree says, “Help! Get me out of this tiny tree pit!”

by Sarah Lord, Baltimore City Forestry Board

Spring is the season to rededicate ourselves to one of Bolton Hill’s best features: our trees.

Our city is underpopulated by trees. Although the City is working hard to reverse these numbers, only 27% of our city is under the tree canopy, well below the desirable goal of 40%.

Our neighborhood is better off than most, but let’s not rest on our laurels (no pun intended).

Get involved with annual neighborhood tree events by joining neighbors for Tree Pruning on Saturday, March 18 and Tree Planting on Saturday, April 15.

If you’re a do-it-yourself type, you can adopt a tree pit to help our neighborhood trees thrive.

Studies have shown that tree pits should be 4′ x 8’ or larger, allowing trees to grow to maturity and cool not just pavement, but rooftops where possible. Many of our older tree pits are much smaller, resulting in cramped, less healthy trees. If your tree pit is too small, hire a contractor to make yours longer and wider if necessary. 

The ideal tree pit has no fencing around it, not even bricks, so that rainwater runoff can flow into the tree wells rather than bypassing them. The soil or mulch in these pits should be just below the pavement grade. When properly graded, you can watch with delight when rainwater flows into the pits to be soaked up by tree roots, nourishing the tree while diminishing storm water runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

Or, plant a new shade tree, being sure to leave the trunk flare at its base above the soil line. It’s not a flagpole, so don’t plant it too deep and kill it. Never heap soil or mulch against the tree trunk, and remember to keep the soil level a tad lower than the surrounding sidewalk.

Most of all, help our street trees by watering all the tree pits your hose can reach once the hot dry days of summer are upon us. Do it about once a week, if we have not had a good rain. If conditions have been dry, watering in the fall can be critical to a tree’s survival over winter.

Need advice on how properly to plant, trim, or care for trees? Contact Bolton Hill tree expert Sarah Lord at

Let’s Take Care of Our Trees

Trimming TreesBolton Hill’s trees make the neighborhood a great place to live, but trees can’t take care of themselves. And it turns out, March is great tree-trimming weather.

Certified TreeKeepers David Nyweide and Sarah Lord are ready to lead a band of Bolton Hillers in branch trimming. Prune the tree in front of your house, or all the trees on your block.

Proper trimming promotes healthy growth for our street trees, and trimming branches selectively can ensure that street lights are not obscured.

To volunteer, contact Sarah Lord at fennofarm [at]