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2017 Kane County Chronicle Best of the Fox

Can you ID a tree in winter? Class teaches how

Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 5:29 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, March 18, 2013 6:45 a.m. CDT
(Jonathan Bilyk –
Naturalist Mary Ochenslager teaches Janet Oncken, of Sugar Grove, the basics of identifying tree species during a winter tree identification class Oschenslager taught Sunday through the Sugar Grove Park District at Bliss Woods Forest Preserve in Sugar Grove.

SUGAR GROVE - After decades of walking Kane County's woodlands, Mary Ochenslager can identify the species of a tree simply by looking at it.

But even an experienced naturalist like Ochenslager, who has worked in the past for the St. Charles Park DIstrict and now, conducts programs on behalf of the Sugar Grove Park District, must from time to time look a little closer.

And, if she's not spending time interacting with nature directly, Ochenslager said one of her favorite activities is helping other people learn those same kinds of skills and begin to more readily identify the natural world all around them.

"It's just something I feel right here, in my gut, that I have to do," Ochenslager said, thumping a clenched fist against her abdomen. "I think all of this is just so wonderful, and I want everyone else to see how wonderful it is, too."

Ochenslager annually teaches several classes, helping any interested attenders learn first-hand about trees, flowers, birds and other facets of Kane County's natural habitats.

Sunday, despite the cold mid-March weather, Ochenslager took a small group of students along the edge of the woods at Bliss Woods Forest Preserve in Sugar Grove, teaching the basics of identifying trees in the winter.

She noted that many people often can correctly identify trees by their leaves.

But she said many of those same people may struggle to tell one deciduous tree from another during the months in northern Illinois when the leaves have fallen to the ground, leaving barren branches and twigs.

Ochenslager walked her students through the process of using twigs, buds, bark and fallen leaves and seeds, as well as the landscape in which the tree is found, to identify various local species, including white ash, white oak, red oak, burr oak, silver maple, black walnut and butternut hickory.

"Some people think they can come to a class like this, and leave knowing how to identify any tree," Ochenslager said. "There's more to it than that.

"But anyone who comes to this class can leave knowing the tools that can help them identify any tree."

Janet Oncken, of Sugar Grove, said she attended the class to continue her own self-education on the local forests, so she can pass on the knowledge to her grandchildren and other area children.

"I like nature, a lot," said Oncken, a retired teacher. "I know I can learn from Mary, and I want to find a way to use that to guide children on things like this."

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