Habitat, silhouette, bark and buds can all be helpful when identifying a tree in winter. Occasionally a species has one characteristic that is so distinctive, it serves as a diagnostic feature. The sulfur-yellow coloring of Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) buds is such a characteristic. Both lateral and terminal buds have a powdery coating which gives them a bright yellow appearance. Look for Bitternut Hickory on moist lowlands (hence, its other common name, Swamp Hickory) and rich uplands. Although humans find the nut of this hickory inedible, the smoke produced by burning its wood produces the best “hickory-smoked” hams and bacon.
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Tree 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.