An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Tree Buds

Next Year’s Buds Already Formed

11-7-18 A. beech bud _U1A1228Because tree buds tend to swell and increase greatly in size in the spring, this is often the season when we first notice them and assume that this is when they are produced.  However, if you look in the axils of leaves on any deciduous tree right now, you will see full-size buds that were formed this summer.   These little packages of miniature leaves, branches and sometimes flowers, will remain on trees all winter, tightly closed and often protected from the elements by modified leaves called bud scales.  Come spring, when trees are once again taking up quantities of water, their buds will swell, scales will fall off (leaving bud scale scars), and tiny, pristine leaves or flowers will appear.  (Photo is of American beech, Fagus grandifolia, bud.)

Just a quick reminder that the NC Calendar ordering deadline is November 10th.

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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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Bud Scales

bud scales 147Much of this coming summer’s woody plant growth is contained in embryonic form inside a tree’s buds. Buds contain an undeveloped shoot, leaf, and/or flower. Formed last summer, these buds must survive the freezing and fluctuating temperatures, relatively dry air and the potential insect, bird and fungal damage that may occur during the fall, winter and early spring.

Bud scales, which are small, modified leaves, cover and protect many of these buds. The number of scales, their arrangement, color, presence or absence of hairs or sticky substances are often distinctive. Willows have one visible bud scale (actually two fused into one), whereas pine and fir buds may have anywhere from 100 to 350. The scales on a bud can either be arranged in pairs facing each other edgewise (American Basswood, pictured) or overlapping like shingles (Sugar Maple, pictured). Colors range from the wine-colored bud scales of Striped Maple to the mustard yellow Bitternut Hickory scales. The texture of bud scales has great variation, including the satiny-smooth hairy bud scales of Box Elder (pictured). Many bud scales, such as poplars, are covered by a gummy substance which serves as added protection.

A few trees and shrubs have buds that lack scales. These are referred to as “naked” buds, and often the embryonic leaves are quite hairy. Witch Hazel, Hobblebush and Staghorn Sumac (pictured) are species of woody plants lacking bud scales.

Most buds have multiple scales which, upon falling off when the bud opens, leave a series of horizontally-elongated scars on the surface of the growing stem. By means of these scars one can determine the age of a young branch, since each year’s growth ends in the formation of a terminal bud which produces an additional group of bud scale scars. Continued growth of the branch causes these scars to be indistinguishable after a few years so that the age of older branches cannot be determined by this means.

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Black Cherry – well known to most readers!

black cherry tree silhouette IMG_5114Black Cherry, more than most tree species, often has several identifying features even after it loses its leaves. The buds of Black Cherry have about ten scales, each of which is brown at the tip and green at the base. The bark of young Black Cherry trees is typically smooth, reddish in color and covered with grayish, horizontal lines called lenticels — small openings that allow the passage of gases in and out of the tree. The bark on older Black Cherry trees consists of squarish scales, curved outward at their vertical edges, somewhat resembling burnt potato chips. Black Cherry is one of several trees on which the fungus Apiosporina morbosa causes Black Knot Galls. Lastly, Black Cherry is the primary host for the Eastern Tent Caterpillar moth. These moths encircle Black Cherry branches with their egg masses, and the eggs hatch just as Black Cherry’s leaves emerge from their buds, providing food for the young larvae.

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Red Squirrels & Sugar Maples

2-20-15 red squirrel2 IMG_7851We’re approaching what is often a very stressful time of year for many animals, including red squirrels. In the fall they feed on all kinds of conifer seeds, mushrooms, insects, nuts and the many fruits and berries that are available. They also have caches of cones, which they turn to once there is a scarcity of food elsewhere.

Once these caches are used up, usually by late winter or early spring, red squirrels turn to sugar maples for nutrients. Their timing is perfect, for this is when sap is starting to be drawn up from the roots of trees. Red squirrels are known to harvest this sap by making single bites into the tree with their incisors. These bites go deep enough to tap into the tree’s xylem tissue, which is where the sap is flowing. The puncture causes the sap to flow out of the tree, but the squirrel delays its gratification. It leaves and returns later to lick up the sugary residue that remains on the branch after most of the water has evaporated from the sap.

Not only do red squirrels help themselves to sugar maple sap, but they have developed a taste for the buds, and later in the spring, the flowers, of both red and sugar maples. Red squirrels are not the only culprits – gray squirrels and flying squirrels also make short work of buds and flowers from these trees.

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White Ash Winter I.D.

2-19 white ash leaf scar 007White ash, Fraxinus americana, is relatively easy to identify in winter, between its stout, opposite branches and buds and the corky ridges that form diamond shapes on its bark. There are several species of ashes, however, and one feature that distinguishes White Ash is the shape of its leaf scars (located beneath leaf buds) on well-developed branches. Each leaf scar (left by a leaf that fell off the tree) is round at the bottom and notched at the top, resembling the letter “C” on its side. (No other ash has c-shaped leaf scars.) It is often concave along the upper edge and the lateral buds are located within the curved portion of the leaf scar.

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Northern Red Oak Buds

12-23-14  red oak terminal buds IMG_6865There are approximately 600 species of oaks in the genus Quercus, all of which are in the Beech family. This genus has two subgroups, the red oaks and the white oaks. The leaves of trees in the red oak group have sharply pointed lobes with bristles. The white oak group has leaves with rounded lobes lacking bristles. Although usually there are some leaves on an oak tree that persist well into the winter, it is helpful to be able to identify a species by its buds alone. Oaks tend to have multiple terminal buds. Northern Red Oak’s terminal buds are large, pointed, cone-shaped and covered with reddish-brown, mostly hairless scales that overlap like shingles, with one edge covered and the other edge exposed.

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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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Bitternut Hickory Buds

1-10-14 bitternut  hickory 102Habitat, 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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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!

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.