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Biodiversity Blog


The Woods of 214

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When you enter room 214 in the Biological Laboratories Building (BIO), the first thing that may strike you is the wood paneling. You may then dismiss the room as a relic from the 1970s when cheap and sometimes synthetic wood paneling was all the rage. (That along with linoleum and an over-abundant use of anything avocado colored.)

But BIO 214 has a much more interesting history behind its wood panels. In fact, Charles Heimch (1914-2003) wrote all about it in an article titled appropriately: Woods. Heimsch was a botanist who specialized in systematic plant anatomy. He was on the UT faculty from 1947 to 1959 when he left the university for umm…woodier pastures.

There are a whopping 46 tree species native to the United States in room 214. “The display of panels in the conference room,” Heimch wrote in his article, “was planned to emphasize the differences in color, grain, texture and figure among woods…As a permanent installation the display is a part of the surroundings of many students and it will be of great value as a demonstration of those aspects of botanical science to which it pertains.”

The majority of the tree specimens are from Texas sources. “Most of the important United States woods are represented,” Heimch writes, referring to pine, cypress, redwood, fir, cedar, spruce, hemlock, and larch as just a few examples. By “important,” Heimch’s article stresses commercial use including: lumber, tools, cartons, paper pulp, and furniture. His article does not focus on the environmental benefits of these trees, perhaps a reflection of a time in mid-century America when that was not so much on everyone’s minds.

Below is a list of the trees in Heimch's article, as well as some interesting qualities about many of them. Some examples Heimch lists do not give specifics on species beyond the genus. Other trees in his list have since had both their species’ names and common names changed. Those changes are reflected here.

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The softwoods, or Gymnosperms, in room 214 are:

Pines include ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) which is widely distributed in the range of the Rocky Mountains in the US and Canada, into Mexico and the Pacific Northwest States. Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) is the largest of all pines. Western white pine (Pinus monticola) also gets quite tall with some trees getting up to 200 feet.

Other pines include longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata), loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea). The characteristics of their cones and needles are some ways used to distinguish pine species from each other.

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) are found abundantly in swamps and other moist soils, and have the characteristic “knees.” It was thought the knees help with aeration or structural assistance to the tree, but most of these theories are disproven.

Coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is found in the coastal regions of California and Oregon. These trees can get huge, with the “Founder’s Tree” measuring around 346 feet in height! It was once the tallest tree in the world. Sequoia sempervirens is the sole living species of the genus Sequoia in the cypress family Cupressaceae.

Firs include Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga taxifolia) and white fir (Abies concolor). The white fir trait of retaining lower limbs creates an escape route from predators for medium to small forest birds. However, these same limbs can become a "fuel ladder" that allows flames to climb up to the canopy. Recent fire concern for sequoia groves has caused agencies to call for removal of white fir in the Sierra Nevada.

Cedars include western redcedar (Thuja plicata) and inland red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Western redcedar is not a true cedar in the genus Cedrus.

Spruce trees include Englemann spruce (Picea Engelmanni) and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). Sitka spruce is the largest species of spruce in the world, growing to almost 330 feet in height. Spruce are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) species, such as the eastern spruce budworm. They are also used by the larvae of gall adelgids (Adelges species). In western Sweden, scientists have found a Norway spruce, nicknamed “Old Tjikko,” which by reproducing through layering, has reached an age of 9,550 years and is claimed to be the world's oldest known living tree.

Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla): This is the most toxic native plant to North America.

Larch (Larix occidentalis): Because it is shade intolerant, larch trees grow more quickly than other trees. Competition for that sunlight!


The hardwoods, or Angiosperms, in Room 214 include:

Ash (genus Fraxinus): Two species are in the room: white ash (Fraxinus americana) and green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica var. lanceolata). White ash is widely cultivated due to various uses which include electric guitar bodies, baseball bats, and lobster traps.

Basswood (Tilia americana): Beekeepers once used soft pliable basswood to make squares for comb honey sections. From 1880 to 1920, one million basswood boxes were made each year for packaging comb honey. So many trees were cut for comb honey that basswood trees almost disappeared from the eastern forests of the US. Today, only some apiarists use basswood as there are cheaper sources that aren’t as prone to warping and rot.

American beech: (Fagus grandifolia). The Wildflower Center (one of our field stations) has this to say about beech: “American Beech was recognized by the colonists, who already knew the famous, closely related European Beech. American Beech…bears similar edible beechnuts, which are consumed in quantities by wildlife, especially squirrels, raccoons, bears, other mammals, and game birds. Unlike most trees, beeches retain smooth bark in age. The trunks are favorites for carving and preserv[ing] initials and dates indefinitely.”

Each panel has a nameplate of the tree name beneath it. These are original nameplates.

Birch (genus Betula): A birch is a thin-leaved deciduous hardwood tree in the family Betulaceae, which also includes alders, hazels, and hornbeams.

Buckeye (genus Aesculus): Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) named the genus Aesculus after the Roman name for an edible acorn. Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist, taxonomist, and physician, who is known as the “father of modern taxonomy.”

Cherry (genus Prunus): Prunus is a genus of trees and shrubs, some of which fruit. Cherry trees impress during springtime with bright pink blossoms, so much so that tourists make a point to visit popular spots around the world known for cherry blossoms. Here in Texas, we have several areas to see these trees in bloom. The wood of the Black cherry (Prunus serotina), the wood in room 214, is known for furniture making because of its rich, red, fine-grained wood.

Elm (genus Ulmus): Elm trees have an interesting representation in Celtic mythology. Elms had a special affinity with elves who guarded burial mounds, their dead and the associated passage into the Underworld.

Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica): This tree makes small berries that are blue and consumed by mammals and birds.

Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua): Their deciduous leaves make a star-shaped leaf. During the mid 1700s-1800s in areas of North America where this tree is native, gum was obtained from the trunks by peeling the bark and scraping off the resinlike solid. This gum was used medicinally as well as for chewing gum. Probably didn't taste anything like Dubble Bubble.

Hackberry (genus Celtis): The genus is part of the extended hemp family (Cannabaceae).

Hickory and Pecan (genus Carya for both): It almost goes without saying that these trees produce nuts that have been food sources for both wildlife and humans. (Pecan pie anyone?) Pecans are actually a species of hickory.

Holly (Ilex opaca): Other than the Christmas tree, this is an iconic plant for Christmas holidays. While some animals and birds can eat the berries, they are toxic to humans.

Black locust (Robina pseudoacacia): The black locust is a plant from the subfamily of Faboideae in the family of legumes (Fabaceae) and is a relative of the pea and bean.

Magnolia (genus Magnolia): The genus is very old. Fossils of plants belonging to the family Magnoliaceae date to 95 million years ago, so before bees evolved. Thus, they are theorized to have thus evolved to attract beetles.

photos wall
 Wall with historical photos of botany department staff.

Maple (genus Acer): This tree is very important to Canada, maybe as important as hockey. A maple leaf is on the coat of arms of Canada and on the Canadian flag. It is the national tree, and the name of an ice hockey team: the Toronto Maple Leaves. And let’s not forget syrup. The syrups of Canada must be made exclusively from maple sap and be at least 66 percent sugar to qualify as maple syrup.

Oak (genus Quercus): North America has the largest number of oak species, with approximately 160 species in Mexico of which 109 are endemic and about 90 in the United States. Austin just isn’t Austin without our oak trees, and neither is the UT Austin campus. You can read a little about the Battle Oaks here and their interesting campus history.

Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana): The word "persimmon" is of Algonquian origin, while the genus name Diospyros is Greek and means "fruit of the god Zeus." Fruit of a god indeed. The flavor is amazingly sweet and date-like, and loved by humans, opossums, deer, birds, skunks, and raccoons.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): Traditional root beer was made with sassafras, but sassafras contains safrole, a compound banned by the FDA due to carcinogenic effects. In high doses, safrole can cause liver cancer in rats. Nonetheless, all parts of this plant have been used historically for healing wounds and cooking, and some parts are still in use. Natural extracts with safrole distilled and removed are available. Filé powder, a staple for Louisiana Creole cuisine, is made from dried and ground leaves.

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis): The heartwood, which is the central supporting pillar of a tree, decays quickly in the tree. This produces large hollow cavities in the center which are used for nesting and homes by bats and other cavity-nesting birds such as owls. Some hollows are big enough for black bear dens!

Walnut (genus Juglans): China produces half of the world’s total of walnuts. The shell of the fruit has a lot of interesting uses. Some uses include: addition to paint to give thicker consistency; a filler in dynamite; cleanser for fiberglass, stone, and soft metals; and for the removal of graffiti.

Black willow (Salix nigra): Black willow roots are very bitter and have been used as a substitute for quinine, medication for the treatment of malaria and babesiosis.This tree is used for marshland stabilization and restoration projects.

Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera): Also called “tulip tree” for its showy flowers, this is a fast-growing tree that doesn’t show problems that other fast-growing trees do such as short life span and weak wood. It does not host a great diversity of insects, with only 28 species of moths associated with it. Among specialists, L tulipifera is the sole host plant for the caterpillars of Callosamia angulifera, a giant silkmoth found in the eastern US.

Thanks to George Yatskievych, Curator in the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center, for guidance.




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