The Mystery Tree

Written by Tyler Morris
Wed Dec 19, 2012

While riding my bicycle, no-handed, at 7 am on a Saturday in July, I first noticed this tree while looking around at everything but the totally familiar road in front of me.  "Cool.  A sweetgum.  I'll look at it more closely tomorrow," I thought while speeding by.  Honestly, I have never seen a sweetgum tree, however I distinctly recall their starfish-shaped leaves from my Dendrology class in college back in 1992.  I was positive that it was a sweetgum, and I was happy to know that my first sighting happened right across the street from Library Park, historically my favorite place to spend time with my daughter, Olivia.  

The next morning at 7 am, I leaned on my bars and braked in front of the tree to take a closer look.  "Huh... two-winged samaras?"  I thought that two-winged samaras, or helicopters, were exclusively a feature of maples.  "Surely, sweetgums must be related to the maples," I convinced myself.

So, that night I did some research on sweetgum.  I went to Wikipedia's entry about Liquidambar Syraciflua and it states,"The leaves are rich, dark green; smooth, shiny, and star-shaped."  The leaves pictured looked almost exactly like the leaves of "my" tree.  But... "the fruit is a woody multiple capsule...popularly called a gumball"  No two-winged samaras in the sweetgum description...anywhere.  Meanwhile, I was keeping a very interested Olivia abreast with my developments.  "It's a Mystery Tree," we concurred.

For the next couple weeks I spent a few minutes each night doing research on maple leaves and potentially mutant varieties of sweetgum -mainly looking through Google images- with no success.  I enlisted the help of my friends who also loved trees- or just loved a good caper. Then, my landscape architect friend, Arthur Fairburn, came by my shop and confidently told me that the Mystery Tree is no longer a mystery.  He was sure it was a Trident Maple.

Five years ago, Arthur had taken a tour with Fort Collins' city forester and he distinctly recalls the group stopping in Laporte Avenue's median in front of Washington's Bar.   The city forester said, "These are three examples of my favorite type of tree in Fort Collins, these are Trident Maples,"  And he went on and on about it's shade tolerance, it's lack of surface roots, it's beautiful shiny green leaves and other virtues.  So, seemingly the mystery had been solved.  But, since we had an internet connection close at hand, we did a quick "Fact Check," and right away, we knew that this wasn't the correct ID.  One after another, the Google images were showing three-lobed leaves, not five.  And then our Latin 101 finally kicked in.  "Of course the Trident has three lobes!"

Arthur was deflated and felt betrayed by the city's "expert."  But strangely, I was relieved.  I was enjoying this mystery and I wasn't ready for it to end.  In the following days I got calls, texts and emails from my dutiful friends.  "It's gotta be a Korean maple," said Andy.  Greg said, "definitely a Chinese maple."  I would proceed to do a 10 minute Google image check... then I had to return their messages with "nice try."

For the next few weeks, I took a look at the Mystery Tree every morning. I think it reinforced my desire to ride my bicycle daily; surely, I wouldn't drive to it and then pull over and then park the car and then get out and then walk up to it.  Then, one late August morning, Andy told me that he was having lunch with theTom Throgmorton.  Tom has had a plant advice radio show on KUNC for 20 years.  Andy excitedly told me that Tom agreed to take a look at the tree and identify it after their lunch.  I said, "Cool.  Thanks."  But, my instincts told me that if today was the last Mystery Tree day, I was going to be the one to ID it.  So, I dropped what I was doing and did some more internet based research in earnest. 

The funny thing is; this time, under pressure, I solved the mystery in 10 minutes!  Turns out it's a Shantung maple (Acer truncatum) and it's native to Northern China.  I told Olivia and asked her if she could help me remember the name Shantung.  She agreed and asked,  "are there more in Fort Collins?"

The calendar flipped to September and I was feeling anxious to investigate other Shantung maples and get a look at other unusual deciduous trees before the leaves started to turn.  I recalled hearing years ago that our City Park had a "Self Guided Tree Tour."  I called their office and they told me that they have a complementary, 5-page handout consisting of a map and list of 220 trees. It was a gorgeous fall day and I cut out of work a bit early and went to the park to get my pamphlet.  I skimmed through the list of trees and to my surprise, saw "Shantung maple C119" on the list!  I quickly found it and at a glance it confirmed my identification of the other.  When I returned home, I told Olivia that I found Shampoo maple #2.  "Awesome.  But it's called Shantung, Daddy."

The next day, out of curiosity, I went to check out the three Trident Maples in Old Town that Arthur told me about.  Instead, I was shocked to see a trio of Shantung maples!  So, Arthur's memory was correct!  But, the city forester's ID was wrong, but I can forgive him. So, just 6 blocks from my house...#3, #4, and #5.

At some point during the summer, I made a parallel between my Shantungs and Steve's asparagus.  So Steve, whom I've worked with for 14 years, would spend some time each day after work to find wild asparagus.  All casual observers, including myself, would ask him the same question, "Why do you waste your time looking for asparagus when you could just go to the store and buy a bunch?"  Steve would reply, "It's the search that I enjoy."  I can relate.  Furthermore, I think Steve's simple philosophy should be practiced more often these days by children.  Obviously, our lives are crowded with stuff that will help us achieve instant gratification.  For example, there's a possibility that the City of Fort Collins has published a  map depicting all the trees in our city, potentially showing us where each Shantung maple is located.  However, Olivia and I are opting to locate them ourselves and create our own map.  And who knows?  We could possibly develop other passions, like bird watching or identifying insects. I think it would be cool if we could find Shantung #6 and then Olivia notices a Praying Mantis on one of it's branches and then a Western Tanager flies by and lands on another branch.

The autumn was sunny and warm and clung on- as did the leaves on the deciduous trees- so, with every opportunity, I would frantically seek Shantung #6.  And while bicycle commuting, I would crane my neck searching.  This dangerous practice almost caused me to smash into a pretty college girl; seemingly, the same pretty college girl that caused me to rubberneck and crash my bike into a parked car twenty years earlier.  On a side note, I no longer gawk at the pretty college girls since I have taken Jerry Seinfeld's advice, "It's like looking at the sun. You don't stare at it!  You get a sense of it.  Then look away!"  

Unfortunately, Olivia and I never did find another Shantung in 2012. It's now winter and the list remains at five. Perhaps another Mystery Tree will burst buds in the spring?  We hope so.
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