Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983
TWELVE COMMON NATIVE TREES AND SHRUBS
by Beth Anne Burwell
As we walked up the old road, muddy from the recent shower, we could see sumac with the leaves beginning to turn a brilliant red, sassafras turning a yellow-orange and dogwood loaded with red berries. Under the trees, the clusters of coral berries of the buckbrush weighted down the stems. Further along in a draw we picked a green persimmon, not yet ready to eat.
George Watson tugged at his beard as he pondered over a small shrub saying,
"Well, I don't exactly know what it's called." But he knew something about almost any bush, tree or weed. He seemed to belong in the forest. "I got that much Indian, I guess," he said.
Deciding to take a detour to find some blackhaw, we trudged up a hillside. George leaned slowly over his walking stick to pick a berry from a small tree. "Take a bite of that. That's blackhaw." The blue-black berry gleamed from the rain as he held it out to us.
Changing course and walking down a path with the branches of overhanging trees slapping us in the face, we made our way to a lone spicebush. George picked a leaf. "Crush this in YOur hand and smell it," he said. "It smells sort of spicy." As we crumpled it, a wonderful spicy aroma floated through the air.
As we walked farther down the path into a hollow we saw a pawpaw tree loaded with greenish-yellow fruit. The pawpaw fruit was beginning to turn purple in places like small bruises, indicating it was ready to eat.
A walk through the Ozark woods at any other season will offer just as much enjoyment from the trees and bushes. Fall shows off the colors and harvest of fruits and berries, winter the silhouette, spring the flowers, and summer the maturity and lushness of the foliage. Especially showy are the native flowering trees and shrubs noticed first in their blooming stage in spring before the taller oaks leaf out, and again in the fall by their berries and brilliant colored leaves which often turn before the russet oaks.
Following are twelve common native trees and shrubs arranged alphabetically by their common names. These trees and shrubs are sometimes considered the underdogs of the forest, not only because they are understory trees, but also because they are often not appreciated. Their ability to spread quickly, making groves of small trees or tangled undergrowth of bushes wherever they are left alone, makes them a nuisance. Farmers usually end up cutting them down.
In addition to George Watson, we are indebted to Bob Shotts and David Massey for help in this article.
[Viburum rufidulium] Honeysuckle Family
Blackhaw is found in rocky, wooded areas such as in the shade of larger trees like oaks and walnuts. Blackhaw is also found along streams and river banks. This understory tree does not exceed twenty feet in height.
It is recognized by a small blue-black berry that ripens in the late fall. The blackhaw berry is good to eat. "It's got a good sweet flavor. I love the things," said George. "I eat everyone I get a hold of." The trick is to pick the berry after it frosts. "You don't eat the seed. Just suck them and get the meat out around that hard seed right in the middle." Since wildlife likes the berries, they don't remain longer than a few days. In middle spring it has a small, delicate, white blossom that forms in clusters at the end of the branches. The oval-shaped leaves are rust colored in fall.
Besides the berries, blackhaw can also be identified by its unusual, velvety, chocolate brown bud that develops in the fall. [Photos 10, 11, 23]
[Stephylea trifolia] Bladdernut Family
Bladdernut, a shrub that does not usually reach over twenty feet, is found in moist wet areas such as stream banks.
The bladdernut is known for its unusual seeds and flowers. The flowers that bloom in early spring are light green and resemble those of lily-of-the-valley. The papery bladder around the seed is about an inch long. It has several Seeds in it making it look like a Japanese lantern which makes it a favorite for dried flower arrangements. The leaves are oblong and have a saw-toothed edge. [Photos 15, 24]
[Symphoricarpas orliculatus] Honeysuckle Family
Some nursery catalogs classify buckbrush as coralberry, and list adaptability and hardiness as desirable traits. This shrub will normally reach two or three feet in height and grows almost anywhere.
Farmers are not so keen about buckbrush because they have problems with it invading fields and fence rows. It sends out runners under the surface, making it spread quickly in their fields.
Buckbrush flowers are greenish to purple. The individual flowers are bell-shaped and form in clusters. These flowers bloom from July to August. The oval-shaped leaves are approximately two inches long. Buckbrush bears coral-colored berries in the late fall and winter. The berries are prized in dried flower arrangements.
George explained how his family used to use buckbrush. "We used to make a broom to sweep the yard. Just get a big bunch of buckbrush, put a stick in it, draw a wire around it real tight and sweep your yard."
Some old-timers used the runners to weave baskets. Esther Humphreys remembered helping her mother gather the runners in the spring. They soaked them to remove the outer layer. Her mother then wove kidney-shaped egg baskets from the runners. [Photo 9]
[Comus florida] Dogwood Family
Dogwood, well known as Missouri's state tree, attracts tourists to the Ozarks in the spring.
Dogwood grows in well drained soil in the wild. It is an understory tree found in established forests. Its height doesn't exceed thirty feet. The branches grow horizontally and the leaves seem to droop off them. The showy part of the tree consists of the four white brackets that surround the cluster of inconspicuous flowers in the center. These bloom early in the spring when other trees are just beginning to leaf out. The cluster of flowers produces the red oblong berries that mature in the fall along with the scarlet red fall foliage.
Because of dogwood's pleasing features, it is used in yards as a lawn ornament. The hard wood has been used for many items from shuttles in looms, mountain dulcimer noters and violin necks. George used dogwood for broad ax handles because the trunks and branches of the tree tend to curve, causing a natural curve in the handle. [Photos 1, 2, 3, 12]
[Asimina staleis trilioba] Custard-Apple Family
The pawpaw tree grows in groves in moist, wet areas such as bottom lands or flood plains. Pawpaw, a slender upright tree, rarely exceeds thirty feet in height.
Pawpaw flowers are about an inch in width. They have six petals which are green, then turn brown, then maroon with maturity in mid-April. The large, broad leaves are about a foot long, tending to droop off the branches. This tree is recognized by its large green fruit commonly known as Missouri bananas. The fruit has large brown seeds in the middle, ripening in October or November. When the skin opens and turns greenish purple, it is ready to eat. People usually have to gather the fruit while still on the tree in the fall, for wildlife such as racoons and possums eat the fruit as soon as it falls.
Some people like the pawpaw fruit, but some don't because of its rich, exotic taste. Most eat it as they would an apple or banana, but some use it in jams or other dishes. [Photos 4, 6, 13]
[Diospyres virginiana] Ebony Family
Persimmon is also commonly called possomwood.
This tree is usually found in groves of small trees along fence rows or in old abandoned fields where it is one of the first trees to take over. But in bottom lands such as streams or river banks, the persimmon's height sometimes reaches to seventy feet.
Persimmon flowers are yellowish and bell-shaped blooming in mid-April. The male and female flowers are on different trees. The male flowers come in clusters of two or three. The female flowers are single. The oval leaves are approximately five inches. Persimmon has a round, orange fruit. It is used in many recipes from breads to puddings as well as eaten raw. If it is picked before it freezes a couple of times, it will taste bitter and make your mouth pucker. Eating too many green persimmons will cause diarrhea.
Persimmon wood is highly prized by cabinet makers. It is a hard dense wood, colorful like mahagony. [Photos 14, 16]
[Cercis canadensis] Pea Family
Redbud grows in shady places such as established forests under larger oaks and hickories and along stream banks. Its average height is twenty feet.
Just before other trees are leafing out, about mid-spring, about a week or two before dogwood blossoms, it has clusters of small red-purple flowers all along the branches. Redbud has easily recognized characteristics besides the flowers--heart shaped leaves which turn yellow in the fall, and long, flat, red seedpods which hang on most of the winter. [Photos 1, 19, 21, 30]
[Sassafras albidum] Laurel Family
Sassafras is used for making tea. Find a tree in February before the sap runs, dig some roots and boil them. The tea, which has a deep pink color, is used as a spring tonic or just for everyday use. The original root beer flavor was based on sassafras.
Like persimmons it is an old field invader, growing in abandoned fields and along fence rows. As an invader it grows in groups of small trees, but in rich bottom lands, its height may reach as much as sixty feet.
This tree has the male and female flowers on separate trees that bloom in mid-spring. Both sexes of flowers are in clusters and are yellowish-green.
The leaves and stems of this tree have a spicy aroma, making it recognized as a member of the Laurel family. The leaves have from zero to three lobes, producing shapes that look like mittens and gloves. These different shaped leaves give the tree sort of lacy effect. The fall foliage is bright yellow, orange and red. A blue-black berry with a red stalk comes on while the leaves are still green. [Photos 5, 7, 8, 27, 28, 31, 32]
[Amelanchier arborea] Rose Family
The older generation call serviceberry sarvusberry.
Serviceberry, like dogwood, grows best in well drained soil in established forests. This tree seldom reaches over thirty feet in height.
One of the earliest trees to bloom in the spring, serviceberry has clusters of small delicate white flowers in early April. From a distance they look like popped corn. The leaves are an oval shape and approximately three inches long with a fine saw-toothed edge. The fall foliage is orange. Serviceberry has red-purple berries that ripen in June. It is difficult to find the berries. They don't remain on the tree long because the wildlife eat them. Birds eat these berries and as a result spread the seed.
Pioneers prized the fruit, making pies and jams from it. [Photo 29]
[Lindera benzoin] Laurel Family
Spicebush is also known as spicewood. The best way to identify it is by crushing the leaf and smelling its spicy odor.
This shrub is found in rich soil along river or stream banks. The average height of spicebush is about twelve feet.
The flowers, blooming from March to May, are yellow, numerous, flat topped clusters. The leaves are egg-shaped with a large pointed tip. Spicebush has small round red berries which come on from July to September.
This shrub is used as an ornamental plant in landscaping because of its berries and the spicy aroma of the leaves and stems. Ella Dunn remembered making tea from spicebush. "Take the roots or the stems and then make a tea out of them. I don't remember whether my folks used to dry them or not." The blossoms also make tea.
The spicebush has other edible qualities. The leaves can be used as bay leaves in cooking, only they are stronger.
The red coating of the berry after drying and grinding was used as a pepper substitute. [Photo 18, 22, 25]
[Rhus glabra] Cashew Family
Shoemake, as it is commonly called, is found along fence rows and road margins. It is an invader of old fields like sassafras and persimmon. It can usually grow in any kind of soil. Some varieties may reach over twenty feet, but usually it is about six to eight feet.
Sumac has very small flowers that bloom at the end of the branches in early summer. The composite leaves are narrow and spear-shaped, turning a brilliant red in autumn. This shrub produces clusters of small red-brown berries maturing in late summer.
George said, "The berries of white shoemake can be used to make dye to color wood." George also explained that the little balls under the leaves of the white sumac are good for a baby's sore mouth, or thrush. "Now that's the best thing for taking a baby's thrush. Take the balls and make a tea. Wash the baby's mouth out with that. It'll cure it right up."
The wildlife also eats the white sumac. "Turkeys feed on that in the wintertime when stuff is so snowed under they can't get nothing else," he said. The Indians made a tea of the sumac berries. To make the tea, soak the mature seed heads after they turn brown. Then strain through cheesecloth to get the seed out, sweeten and drink as it is. [Photo 20, 26]
[Euonymus atropurpureus] Bittersweet Family
The wahoo is not very noticeable except in the fall when it has very showy berries.
Wahoo is found in the bottom lands and on hillsides. The shrub is normally about twenty feet high.
This shrub has tiny, single dark purple flowers that bloom the last of May or early June. In the fall it has a bright orange seed capsule which splits open, exposing a bright red berry. Wahoo also has a distinctive stem with four little ridges running up it.
Wahoo is used as an ornament for lawns because of its lovely berries, but George knew of an old-time cure using wahoo. "My father one time got a guy to use it for T.B." he said. "You make a tea from the roots, and take a winter grapevine and burn that vine into ashes. Mix them together. Make a tonic out of it, and if you get started in time, you can stop that T.B. with it." [Photo 17]
In addition to pictures by the Bittersweet staff, we are indebted to the following for pictures used in this story. George Kastler (photos 6, 11 and 18), David Massey (photos 1, 5, 22, 23 and 24), Bruce Schuette (4, 9, 15, 19, and 26), and Merle E. Rogers (photo 27).
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues
Local History Home