AUSTINBURG TOWNSHIP — It is Tuesday, Sept. 25. The grass is runny with mud and the sprinkles of rain left over from last night’s showers. Today marks Grand River Academy’s third year of entry in the annual Ashtabula Tree Identification Competition. The atmosphere is one of mounting tension, which is odd considering a nice sunny day spent in a park classifying the genus and species of local trees should be like a vacation for a group of high school students, taking the later part of their school day off to compete.
For the better part of an hour, while the course for the competition was still being set up, the two student teams (a Grand River Academy first) enjoyed the simple pleasures nature had to offer; skipping pancake shaped rocks across a shallow creek, and marveling – much to the disapproval of our mentor and GRA biology teacher Katy Studer – as senior J.B. Stackhouse scaled the face of a 30 foot cliff of mud.
For the past two weeks the two student teams, led respectively by GRA seniors Simon Hong and Justin Evans, had been training after school. Using their small green field manuals, the students had prepared by identifying the genus and species of maple, hickory, sassafras and oak trees found around Grand River Academy’s spacious campus.
Trees are classified based on the characteristics of their leaves. Under the close examination of a tree’s leaves, one can deduce the tree it originated from. Characteristics, such as the shape, structure, size and sometimes even the aroma of a leaf, are organized in a dichotomous key, which the students will narrow down to accurately classify the tree in question. One false definition of a leaf’s characteristics can lead its reader to an inaccurate classification, possibly meaning the difference between a first and second placing.