An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Deciduous Trees

Striped Maple Buds

3-11-14 striped maple terminal bud 132Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum), also known as Moosewood and Moose Maple, can easily be identified summer or winter by its greenish bark bearing vertical white stripes (hence, its common name). Because the bark is so distinctive, one needn’t rely on Striped Maple’s buds for identification purposes, but they are well worth investigating, nonetheless. Their graceful shape, smooth surface (few bud scales) and pinkish-red coloration distinguish them from all others. These buds and young branches that bear them are devoured by rabbits and hares, are frequently eaten by porcupines and beavers, and provide browse for deer and moose.

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Witch Hazel Flowering and Dispersing Last Year’s Seeds

10-11-13  witch hazel flower and fruits 055Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is nature’s final fanfare of the fall. As colorful fall foliage disappears, the yellow strap-like petals of Witch Hazel’s fragrant flowers brighten denuded woods. These flowers are pollinated by moths that are still active this late in the season, and develop into small, hard capsules that remain dormant throughout the winter. During the following summer, these capsules develop to the point where they expel two shiny black seeds 10 to 20 feet away from the tree. The seeds take another year to germinate, making the length of time from flowering to germination approximately two years. (In photo, the yellowish-tan capsules were formed this summer, and the one brown, year-old capsule has opened and dispersed its seeds.)

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Deciduous Leaves Falling

10-19-13 falling sugar maple leaf 081The falling of a leaf is the final step in an ordered series of events referred to as senescence. This process allows trees to conserve resources, prepare for a dormant period, and shed inefficient tissues. When leaves become unable to produce food due to a lack of chlorophyll, a process of shutting-down and sealing-off begins. Leaves are shed through a number of biological actions which take place at the base of the leaf’s stem, or petiole. The walls of some cells weaken, while those of other adjacent cells expand. The expansion of the latter causes pressure against the weaker-walled cells, resulting in these two groups of cells tearing away from each other, causing the leaf to fall. The tree forms a protective barrier on the wound where the leaf had been attached to the branch, sealing it off from pests and the environment and leaving a leaf scar.

Aspen “Snow”

5-27-13 poplar fruit 004Even though it snowed in Vermont this weekend, there is something else white and fluffy that is also being blown about, and it doesn’t melt when it hits the ground. The tiny white bits of fluff that are floating in the air are the seeds of aspens (also referred to as poplars), primarily Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata), that are borne in capsules that develop along a 3 to 6-inch dangling stem. These former flower clusters, and the capsules and seeds they developed into, are referred to as catkins. The capsules split apart when the seeds are mature, releasing the cottony-tufted seeds that are well-designed for dispersal by the wind. Looking into the fluff-filled sky, it’s not hard to believe that a single Bigtooth Aspen tree can produce over a million seeds.

Naked Buds

12-5-12 flower and leaf buds of hobblebush IMG_6226Tree buds are formed in the summer, so if you look at a tree today, it will have buds on it, in the axils of where the leaves used to be (on deciduous trees). There are two kinds of buds – leaf buds and flower buds (flower buds are typically fatter than leaf buds). Both are usually covered with scales which help seal in moisture to protect the bud from drying out during the long, dry winters when water is frozen and therefore unavailable. Different types of trees have different types and numbers of scales. There are a few trees whose buds lack scales completely; these buds are referred to as “naked.” Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) and hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) all have naked buds. In the photograph, a hobblebush leaf bud is on either side of a flower bud.

A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!

American Hornbeam

American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) goes by many names, including Musclewood,  Bluebeech and Ironwood. Its smooth, gray bark that appears twisted and somewhat muscular is very distinctive. This member of the Birch family usually has several trunks, and is usually less than 30 feet tall. Its fruit is in the form of clusters of small nutlets, each attached to a papery bract. A good seed crop is produced every three to five years, at which time it benefits ruffed grouse, cardinals, evening grosbeaks and American goldfinches, all of whom prefer it over many other seeds.

Witch Hazel Flowering

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is in flower, one to two weeks early this year, just as last year’s fruit is mature and ready to explode, sending seeds flying.  This shrub may have gotten its name from its association with dowsing, which was once thought to be a form of witchcraft.  (Witch hazel’s branches were once the wood of choice for dowsing rods, whose purpose is to locate water, or “witch” a well.)  The bark, leaves, and twigs of witch hazel are all high in tannins, giving this plant astringent properties.  It has also been used for any number of medicinal purposes, from treating hemorrhoids to laryngitis.

Delayed Greening of Young Leaves

Many plants practice “delayed greening” of their leaves, including this Red Maple (Acer rubrum).  An initial lack of chlorophyll prevents the leaves from photosynthesizing and making food, which means they have little nutritive value, and thus, appeal, to an herbivore.  Most plants that delay greening have reddish leaves due to the presence of anthocyanin, a pigment which appears reddish.  A majority of herbivorous insects and invertebrates cannot detect colors in the red range of the color spectrum. Young leaves suffer the greatest predation from invertebrate herbivores.  Red leaves would be perceived by these leaf eaters as somewhat dark and possibly dead – not a choice food material.  It is possible that the red coloration of new leaves allows the plant to make them unappealing to the herbivores that would otherwise eat them.

Black Walnut – Identification in Winter

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Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is a relatively easy tree to identify, as it has so many distinctive qualities. In the summer there are round, tennis-ball-sized nuts, which have a delightful smell.  The bark of black walnut is dark and deeply furrowed.  Best of all are the twigs and buds.  If you cut a twig at an angle, you will see the central portion, or pith, is chambered.  It is also brown.  The only other tree that is chambered (not solid) like this is its relative, butternut (Juglans  cinerea), and butternut’s pith is buff colored.  The buds of black walnut are greyish and fuzzy – lacking bud scales.  By far the most amusing thing about black walnut (and butternut) is its leaf scars – the scar left when a leaf falls off.  The vessels that transport food and water, called vascular bundles, are darker than the rest of the scar, and are shaped in such a way that the leaf scar resembles nothing more than the smiling face of a monkey!  (Butternut leaf scars also look like monkeys, but they have a “furrowed brow” of fuzz on the top edge of the leaf scar.)


Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

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Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) buds are oval and pointed, and there are two shades of brown on each of their 3 – 5 bud scales.  The buds and twigs of yellow birch taste like wintergreen.  In the early morning and late afternoon, look for ruffed grouse filling their crops (“budding”) in yellow birch trees, as these buds are one of their favorite foods.  The thin bark of a mature yellow birch is a very distinctive yellow-bronze color (the bark of saplings is a shiny red-brown color), and curls when it separates from the trunk.

Sugar Maple Buds & Bark

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Maples have what is referred to as “opposite” branching – the buds, leaves and branches are positioned opposite one another. If you look at this photo of the terminal bud of a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) you’ll see that the two lateral buds (on either side of the terminal bud) are directly across from each other.  This is relatively rare in the woody plant world — you’ve narrowed down the identity of a tree significantly if you determine that it has opposite branching (ashes and dogwoods, among others, share this characteristic). The buds of sugar maple are pointed.  The appearance of its bark depends on the age of the tree you’re looking at.  Saplings and younger branches are quite smooth (right branch in photo), whereas the bark of an old sugar maple is furrowed with vertical ridges curled outward along one side (left side of photo).

Northern Red Oak Identification in Winter

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While identifying an oak species by the shape of its leaf is fairly easy, there are other characteristics in winter, when leaves aren’t available (except under the snow), that serve as clues to an oak’s identity.  A mature northern red oak can be readily recognized by its bark — its ridges appear to have shiny stripes down the center.  The buds of northern red oak are also distinctive.  Like most oaks, red oak’s terminal (located at tip of twigs) buds occur in clusters.  Northern red oak’s terminal buds are conical, and are a reddish-brown color.


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