A big part of the camping experience is being outside, close to nature. Being surrounded by woods and fields, lakes and stream can bring a sense of peace and well-being to many a camper. While it used to be common for every child to be familiar with the plant and animal life found outdoors, it is now much more common that a child may go years, or even most of their childhood never experiencing a walk through a forest or seeing the animals and animal tracks that are found near lakes, rivers and streams.
It is not surprising then, that most people grow up not knowing the different types of plants and trees that can be found near their homes. There are literally thousands of types of trees worldwide. In fact, one non-profit group called the Botanic Gardens Conservation International has documented over 1,400 species of tree in North America alone. And while that may sound like a huge variety, North America ranks rather low in the number of types of trees compared with other parts of the world. South America, for example boasts more than ten times as many tree species.
North American trees can be divided into many groupings. Botanist catalogs will show classifications such as Families, Genera, and Species. For our purposes we will look at some basic groupings, starting with the difference between hardwoods and softwoods.
Hardwoods, as the name suggests, are more dense and “harder” than their softer cousins. This is generally because they are slower-growing so the woody material is packed more tightly together. Some North American hardwoods include oak, beech, and ash, which is so hard that it is the traditional choice for baseball bats. North American softwoods include mostly pine tree varieties. The scale of “hardness” for trees is relative. For example, white ash may be three times harder than redwood (which is the softest tree in North America), but Brazilian Ebony is three times harder than white ash.
With hundreds of species of trees in North America, let’s look at just some of the more popular ones that you might encounter while camping or strolling a tree-lined avenue. Looking at common softwoods, you will find a variety of what are often called “evergreen” trees, but are actually types of pines, firs, spruces, and larch trees. Common across the US and Canada, these trees are the traditional “Christmas Tree” types with needles and cones and mainly shaped like a pyramid. The majority of Canada’s trees are of this “coniferous’, or cone-bearing type of tree. In fact, over 50% of all Canadian trees are spruces!
The woodlands of the United States are somewhat more diverse in composition and distribution—from the oak-hickory and maple-beech-birch forests dominating the North Eastern sections to wide expanses of pine forests in the Southern states and the primarily pine-laden forests of the West, heavy with Douglas firs and ponderosa pines.
In the hardwood category you are likely to find oaks, maples, hickory, beech, birch and ash trees most prevalent. In the Eastern half of the US you are more likely to find oaks and hickory trees and other hardwoods, while the Western half has relatively few hardwood forests.
Next time you find yourself in the woods, see if you can identify a few of the most common trees shown here.