How can I tell how old my pepper trees were?
February 24, 2015 4:04 PM   Subscribe

COUNT THE RINGS, I KNOW?! amirite? Except, no, I find it really difficult to count the rings as the chainsaw obliterated a lot of them, and the wood doesn't lend itself to clear rings. How else can I estimate the age of this tree?

It (and its sibling tree) was a Peruvian Pepper Tree and died in the drought. The branches extended into the power lines, and we decided to remove them. So how old were they before we chopped them down last fall? We moved here back in May of 2008 and they were fully grown by then.

I think I can post additional photos of them in their glory, if that would help.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord to Home & Garden (7 answers total)

I have no experience counting rings, but I do have a few thoughts. Buckle up, it's going to be labor intensive.

I'd take a section of the log you cut off, and plane it relatively flat, either by hand or in a powered plane.

Then I'd sand it as smooth as possible. Might be possible to count at that point.

Then I'd probably stain it and see if that helped. Stain will "take" to some parts of the wood more than others, possibly increasing the contrast.
posted by RustyBrooks at 4:08 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

before the choppening
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 4:15 PM on February 24, 2015

Once you get something where you can see the rings clearly, it might be easier to count them by scanning at a high resolution, and then viewing or printing it magnified.
posted by ShooBoo at 4:30 PM on February 24, 2015

Sometimes you can find curves that relate basal area, diameter at breast height (~1.5 m), or height to age, but they're usually site-specific and a quick search didn't turn up anything for pepper tree. If there are trees of known age near you, you can measure the circumferences and try to estimate.

Rusty Brooks and ShooBoo are right on - dendrochronologists sand their tree ring samples and view them magnified, and you can even use software to help count. You only need to start with a small bit to see if you'll be able to count the rings. Google image has some pics of pepper tree wood that suggest it might work.
posted by momus_window at 4:57 PM on February 24, 2015

Actually scratch the word stain from my post above and replace it with "dye". Some stains sit on the surface and don't penetrate much. Dye will get taken up into the wood.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:17 PM on February 24, 2015

Working with a cookie (the cross whole cross section!) instead of just a skinny core is really nice. Sometimes things are wonky on one side of the tree or the rings are less clear in some areas.

Elaborating a bit on what others have said, you'll want to cut a slice several inches thick and plane it flat, then sand it very smooth, until the rings are clear. I've used a fine saw and sanded by hand for small jobs, but planers and belt sanders are great. Depending on the type of wood, you might have to work up to 600 or 800 grit to see the rings clearly.

To age the tree, pick what looks like a good path from the bark to the pith and count by 10 starting backwards from the bark. It's helpful to mark every 10 years with a small dot in pencil, two dots every 50 years, and three dots every 100 years.

Sometimes you can do this with the naked eye, especially with angiosperms in wet climates, but it's often hard to do without a microscope. If you don't have access to a scope, you can do as ShooBoo recommended and scan the cookie at high resolution, blow it up on the screen, and then count. Honestly, this is way more comfortable than staring through a microscope anyway and works just as well for all but the tiniest rings.

If you do look at the rings under magnification, this might give you a better idea of what you're looking at. The pictures won't match exactly since wood anatomy varies by species. And Henri Grissino-Mayer's site has a lot of great dendro resources if you want to try something like crossdating your tree or making a skeleton plot!
posted by congen at 11:58 AM on February 25, 2015

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