An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Woody Plants

Distinguishing the Hornbeams

1-23-17-hophornbeam-img_5028There are two trees, both in the Birch family, which, due to the similarity of their common names, are occasionally mixed up with each other. One is known as American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and the other as American or Eastern Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Due to the hardness of their wood, they also both go by the name Ironwood, adding to the confusion. A perfect example of when Linnaeus’s binomial system, which gives each species two scientific names, one of which is unique to each species, is helpful.

While the fruits and leaves of both species are superficially similar, their respective bark is very different. Carpinus caroliniana’s bark resembles flexed muscles (see ), earning it yet another common name, Musclewood, while Ostrya virginiana’s bark (pictured)  has a “shreddy” appearance, with the bark broken into small, narrow plates which curve away from the trunk. Look for C. caroliniana in valleys and along streams, and O. virginiana on well-drained slopes and ridges.

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Partridgeberry Fruit

partridgeberry-049a1637Partridgeberry (the fruit is eaten by partridges, or ruffed grouse, as well as wild turkey, mice, foxes, skunks and deer) is a woody vine found creeping along the forest floor, often in large colonies. At this time of year there are bright red berries interspersed among the paired evergreen leaves. If you look closely at a berry, you will see two indentations at its tip. These are the result of the flowers’ unusual structure and the fruit’s development.

In late spring a pair of white flowers appears which share a set of sepals. Each small, fragrant flower has four white hairy petals that join to form a tube. The unusual aspect of these flowers is that they both must be pollinated to obtain a single berry. Each berry is the result of the fusion of the ovaries of the pollinated pair of white flowers. This fusion is what accounts for the two indentations on the surface of each fruit.

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Witch-hazel Cone Gall Aphids Laying Eggs

10-26-16-witch-hazel-gall-s20161017_5388At this time of year there is a species of aphid, Hormaphis hamamelidis, that is laying eggs on Witch-hazel branches. Next spring female aphids will hatch out of these eggs and begin feeding on newly-emerged Witch-hazel leaves. The aphids inject the leaf with a substance that causes the leaf to form a cone-shaped growth, or gall, around the insect, providing it with both food and shelter. The galls are hollow, and have openings extending out through the leaves’ lower surfaces. Within the galls the unmated female aphids produce 50 – 70 young. Eventually the galls fill with winged female aphids which emerge through the cone openings, disperse, and repeat the process. The third generation of aphids consists of both males and females which mate and lay their eggs on Witch-hazel. The aphids that hatch from these eggs create the conical galls found on Witch-hazel leaves.

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Abscission Layers Forming


As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, cells near where a leaf’s stem joins a tree’s branch start to divide rapidly. This is the start of the creation of the corky layer of cells known as the abcission layer.

The annual growth of a tree ends with the formation of the abcission layer. This layer prevents the transport of materials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch and it blocks the flow of minerals from the roots into the leaves. Chlorophyll, critical to the process of photosynthesis, breaks down with exposure to light and is replaced continually by the leaves during the summer. When the abcission layer forms, this is no longer possible.  The chlorophyll slowly breaks down and disappears, revealing the underlying xanthophylls (yellow pigments) and carotenoids (orange pigments) that the chlorophyll was masking. These pigments, in addition to the red pigments (anthocyanins) that are manufactured from sugars trapped in the leaf, provide us with our brilliant foliage.

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More Buds

2-24-16 buds  019

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.

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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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Southwest-facing Sides of Trees Have Most Stress in Winter

1-19-16 sun scald by Ginny P1000772A tree’s cells are normally dormant in the winter because of the cold temperatures, but the side of a tree trunk that faces the sun on a clear day can warm up enough that the cells become active. Even on a cold day, bark can warm to more than 50 degrees with direct sun on it. Once active, the cells are unable to return to dormancy by the time the sun goes down, which is when the temperature drops and can cause the active cells to die, resulting in what is referred to as sunscald. Dark bark can be a detriment to trees in winter, in that it absorbs rather than reflects the sun’s rays, thereby promoting the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle of cells.  This phenomenon occurs less frequently in forests, where the proximity of other trees offers some protection. (Photo by Virginia Barlow)
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