When people ask him why he spends so much time tagging trees in Howard County, Jim Rose likes to use a cocktail party analogy.
Walking through a park with untagged trees, he says, is like entering a party filled with 50 to 100 strangers and feeling shy and out-of-place. When the trees are identified, though, it's like walking into a cheerful party where everybody wears a name tag.
Tree-tagging may seem like a small act, but Rose has big hopes that his project will inspire suburbanites to look at trees more kindly and perhaps encourage environmental activism. Although it is the first project of its kind in the state that he knows of, Rose says he is trying to persuade other tree-lovers in other counties to start similar programs.
"I think it's more important to do it in suburban areas because there is a great concentration of people who are less tied to the Earth, if you will," he said. "It's more needed in a place like Howard, Baltimore or Montgomery County."
The tagging program is sponsored by the Howard County Forest Conservancy District Board, of which Rose is a member. Although Rose has been tagging trees for months, the county will sponsor an official kick-off tomorrow at 11 a.m. at the county's office complex at which County Executive James N. Robey will hang a tag on a tree.
Rose and county officials hope to foster awareness of the many species of trees in the county and to create an informal countywide network of arboreta-without-walls, with no boundaries or admission charges.
Although the Howard County Forest Conservancy District Board receives about $2,000 a year from the state, Rose says most of the money for tagging county trees has come from his pocket. But, he added, it doesn't cost much.
Each tag states the Latin and common names on one side and a description and picture of the plant on the other. One for Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica, says, "The tree is pyramidal with long reaching branches. With a tall crown and sparse branching it can appear gaunt or whimsical."
Rose prints the cards on his home computer and buys laminated covers for 7 cents each.
Rose, 61, of Columbia, is not a horticulturist by profession. A senior computer scientist for the Computer Sciences Corp. in Baltimore, he fell in love with trees about four years ago during a failed birding trip.
"The trees," he announces gleefully, "don't get up and fly away."
In his zest to educate the public, Rose has created a group called the American Association of Amateur Arborists. It has a Web site, Rose said, but so far only one member: himself.
Rose says he has tagged about 100 trees in Howard County. He has done the trees around Wilde Lake Park and Jackson Pond in Columbia and around the county office complex in Ellicott City. He wants to tag the trees in Centennial Park, Guilford Park and Savage Park
Beyond that, he's open to suggestions.
"If neighborhoods would like their local parks tagged, we could do that," he said.
On his own, Rose has ventured outside the county in his zeal to document trees. He has created a tree map of Patterson Park in Baltimore, of the area around the Quaker Meeting House in Sandy Spring in Montgomery County and of the National Zoo in Washington.
"If you can ignore the number of wonderful animals there," he says, "you'll be delighted by the number of trees." Some of the maps are posted on his Web site, www.arborworks.org, where people can also download the tags.
As he walks through any given arboretum-without-walls, say, the one he has created around the county office building in Ellicott City, Rose points out various trees and sings their praises.
That's a bald cypress, which usually grows in swamps but looks healthy in front of the county office building.
That's a white oak, a seedling from the Wye Oak, the famous tree in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore.
That's a goldenrain tree, complete with pods like Japanese lanterns.
Rose's biggest problem, he says, has been vandalism: People like to steal the tags. Rose isn't too fazed by that, though.
"The best defense against vandalism is to go back and repair it," he said, adding that he's hoping to get enough people excited about the project that some will volunteer to monitor certain parks and replace any missing tags.
Rose says his latest hobby keeps him from getting bored in a town he has called home for about 25 years. Now that he's interested in trees, he says, he likes to walk around the neighborhood where he lives, looking at trees people have planted.
"There's always a surprise around the corner," he says.