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Basic Botany: Bud, Leaf and Branch Arrangement

1-31-18 twigs-1

In winter it is common to use the pattern by which branches and buds are arranged on a deciduous tree as a first, quick clue to the tree’s identity.  There are two large groups of trees, those with alternate and opposite patterns, and a third less common pattern, whorled.  Trees with alternate arrangement have only a single leaf/bud/branch attached at one location (node) on a branch.  Those with opposite arrangement have two leaves/buds/branches attached at a node, opposite one another on either side of the branch.  When more than two leaves/buds/branches arise from a node (rare) this is called a whorled arrangement.

At this time of year, when deciduous trees are bare, you can see the arrangement of buds, branches and leaf scars (where leaves have fallen off) clearly.  Relatively few trees have opposite branching – Maples, Ashes, Dogwoods, and Horse Chestnuts – while a majority have alternate branching.  More characteristics are needed to narrow a tree down to species, but noting its arrangement is an easy and quick way to eliminate certain species.

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4 responses

  1. Martha

    Mary, I learned in a class an easy way to remember which trees are opposite in New England.  MadCapHorse. MapleAshDogwood Capitata Horse Chestnut.  (If you choose to share this with your blog readers, please do not give me credit.)

    January 31, 2018 at 10:50 am

    • Hi Martha,
      Thanks so much. I am familiar with your “madcaphorse” but because “cap”, refers to Caprifoliacae, a family of plants that consists mostly of honeysuckles (bushes/shrubs), I didn’t include it in the post because the post was on trees, not shrubs, but it’s a great mnemonic! Thank you so much.

      January 31, 2018 at 11:03 am

  2. Alice Pratt

    Tree silhouettes and shadows are so gorgeous….especially in the winter, on the snow, with the full moon, last night! My son took a beautiful photo, at sunrise, of Portland-head Light. ME ..there’s a gorgeous tree…I think an oak…waiting till spring, so from a photo I can identify the leaves.

    January 31, 2018 at 3:49 pm

  3. Martha

    I neglected to let you know that Cap means Taxus cuspidata ‘Capitata’.

    February 1, 2018 at 7:09 am

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