Some of my wonderful coworkers here at the Alliance have noticed that our little plant identification YouTube series, Tree Talk, has been going on for three years as of this January. It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed, but looking at the early videos it’s clear that I’ve grown both older and a lot more hair. Hopefully, over that same passage of time, we’ve taught a lot of people about a lot of species!

Teaching tree identification is a classic role of the Alliance’s Forests Program, and for good reason. A primary mission of the program is to educate the 18 million residents of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed about sustainable forest management so that our landscape’s forests are more resilient to the uncertainties of the future. We need resilient forests because we need forests themselves; they are critical for water quality, water quantity, air quality, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and rural economies. The first step to managing forests is, well, to know what species you have.

Most residents of the Chesapeake, myself included, don’t own forest land. We are still essential to instruct on forests though because we all have a connection to forests, the natural condition of our landscape. Many of us do live in urban forests. Cities and towns may have dramatically less vegetation than woodlands, but all of the street trees and plants in yards and parks collectively still count and function in their own way as forests. We all make decisions, whether they are about our backyards or who to vote for, that impact our forests and the larger landscape. So we all need to have a basic understanding of local flora.

Jenny McGarvey, former Senior Forests Program Manager and current Capacity Building Initiative Director (in the blue sweater), and an impossibly young version of me teach tree identification at the 2017 Chesapeake Watershed Forum (Photo by Will Parson).

Our in-person tree identification workshops, which we have been leading around the watershed for over a decade, are frequently so well-attended that we, unfortunately, had to start capping registration. It’s just very hard to teach in the woods to a large group, especially when pointing out some very small details on living plants. It really hurts to turn people away from learning more about trees, though. The high amount of interest in learning tree identification means the world to us on the Alliance Forests Team, and we felt the need to figure out a way to educate more people.

It was in late 2018, a few weeks after having to limit attendance to a tree identification workshop, that the idea to try virtual tree ID lessons struck me while hiking. We already provided written educational content via the monthly Forests for the Bay newsletter, so why not add a video that discusses various tree species and their distinctive attributes to share with people who couldn’t attend in-person workshops?

A screenshot from the first test run of what became Tree Talk. Funny enough, it was on chestnut oak, which we finally just made a bona fide episode on at the 3 year mark of the series.

Since those test runs in 2018, we have acquired a higher quality video camera, switched up the software used to produce the videos, and started to embellish thumbnails, but not much else has changed. If I see a tree (or shrub, vine, or forb) that would be a good example of its species while on weekend hikes, my long-suffering wife Allyson will record me Tree Talkin’, and we co-produce the video later, adding in text pop-ups and doing some minor editing. If you’ve ever watched an episode and wondered why I’m rambling and occasionally correcting mistakes with the pop-ups, it’s because I’m speaking extemporaneously and almost always in one take (neither my dog Newt nor I have the patience to linger in one spot for much longer). I can’t thank Allyson enough for her innumerable hours spent helping me with this project, or for her superhuman patience with me as I stumble through sharing my love of trees with the world.

Given that a majority of the time we’ve been producing Tree Talks has been a global pandemic, it has really kept our tree identification educational efforts afloat. Our goal to multiply how many people we could educate was successful, and we have been able to show viewers plants that they may not have been able to access themselves due to physical limitations or geography. We have heard from just about every kind of viewer you could imagine: forest landowners in the mid-Atlantic, elementary school teachers and college professors, European tree enthusiasts, woodworkers, gardeners, and everything in between. I have been shocked, honored, and humbled by the positive response of the internet to my unplanned ramblings about the plants that I love.

Though we’re hoping to be able to return to in-person, in-the-woods tree ID walks in the near future, we don’t plan to slow down this virtual option until we run out of species. Everyone has a connection to their local fauna, even if we need to help them find it. Everyone also deserves to learn about natural history because it’s human history too.

Want to catch new Tree Talks as they come out, view archived episodes, and enjoy other great content about our woods? Subscribe to the Forests for the Bay Youtube channel and/or newsletter! Thank you to our stalwart partners at the US Forest Service for their perennial support of our outreach efforts.

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