The previous “bud scale” post engaged readers to an extent that made me feel another post with additional buds to scrutinize would be welcome. Apologies to non-woody plant aficionados!
When identifying woody plants in winter, one takes advantage of everything a tree or shrub has to tell you: bud/branch arrangement (opposite/alternate), bark, silhouette and terminal buds. Buds are so revealing that they alone can immediately tell you what species you are seeking to identify. Is there one bud at the tip of each branch (willows) or multiple terminal buds (red oak)? Are there bud scales (no-witch hazel; yes- bigtooth aspen)? If so, what are their number (willows – one) and arrangement (overlapping, like shingles – red oak)? Are the buds red (striped maple), brown (witch hazel), yellow (bitternut hickory), green, or some combination of these colors? Are they pointed (bigtooth aspen) or rounded (willow)? Every species of tree has buds with a unique combination of these characteristics. Now is the time to observe them, as some will soon start to open.
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.