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.
“It is always advisable” said Mrs. Studer, “that we double check.”
Tree ID can be a lengthy process. The field manual, while capable of being carried in a pants pocket, expands more than 80 pages with hundreds of classifications for trees. Identifying one tree can take anywhere from a few minutes, providing the identifier has a few characteristics memorized, to 20 depending on the complexity of a leaf. As it was soon discovered by Grand River Academy’s two student teams, identifying 30 trees in the allotted two hour time limit, proved to be a challenging task.
To say that the pressure was not on would be a bold lie. Grand River Academy has competed previously in the Ashtabula Tree ID Competition, last year taking first place in the overall competition. Several trees, such as the Sugar Maple and the Sassafras, were easily classified by students for their exclusive traits. Sassafras leaves, when crushed, are recognizable for their aroma that reminds one of the citrus smell of Lemon Pledge. Other trees proved to be real stumpers (no pun intended).
Simon Hong’s team respectably placed second, followed closely by Justin Evan’s team, which placed third.
Hong is from South Korea and is a third-year student at Grand River Academy, which prides itself for its variety of international students. When asked why the Tree ID Competition was important for him, Hong said, “It was very helpful to my academics and it looks good on a college application, but students should do it for their own benefits.” This is Hong’s first year competing in the Ashtabula Tree ID Competition. While Grand River Academy must wait until next year to reclaim its first place title in the Ashtabula Tree ID Competition, hope still looms for the upcoming Botany Competition in spring.