In some ways winter is the best season to look at trees. Without the dense foliage that obscures them in summer, their sculptural forms show boldly against the sky. A sugar maple growing in a field can be identified from a distance by its distinctive egg-shaped crown. The elegant vase-like shape of an elm is likewise unmistakable, and a tall straight trunk with pyramidal crown and drooping lower branches identifies a pin oak loud and clear to anyone paying attention.
You can begin to discern signature branching patterns consistent within each species when you observe winter trees more closely. Look for the y-shaped forks of maple branches and twigs, and the crosses formed by side twigs of white ash sticking out at right angles. Ash and maple, along with dogwood, are our only opposite-branched (and leaved) native trees. Black gum, or tupelo, growing in swampy areas, spreads its branches in a unique horizontally-tiered pattern. If its mosaic of gray and white bark patches were not already a dead giveaway, we would be able to tell a sycamore by its skyward-pointing clusters of twigs. Shagbark hickory, whose name describes its bark, also has a distinctive architectural form, composed of jagged and angular limbs. And no tree in our region suggests dugout canoe quite so strongly as than the tulip, with its tall, perfectly straight trunks, often clear of limbs for 40 feet or more.
Move in closer still to take a look at the buds of some common trees, and you will discover an unexpected variety of color, shape and texture. At close range, our two dominant native maples, the red and the sugar maple, can be easily told apart. Red maple is well named: at each time of year some part of it is red. Its leaves blaze scarlet in the fall, red (female) or orange (male) flowers appear early in spring. Its winter buds are red, as are its twigs all year long. Red maple flower buds are round, and bunched alongside the paired leaf buds. Sugar maple buds, on the other hand, are brown and pointed, and at the end of each twig is the triad of a terminal bud flanked by a smaller leaf bud on either side.
Ash buds are blunt and dark, almost black.
Most winter buds are covered by overlapping scales, like those of a fish or like shingles on a roof, which protect the tightly packed leaves and/or flowers within from drying out in the harsh winter winds. Pussy willow is named for the dense, soft fur that covers its buds, but many other trees, like sugar maple, have buds covered with a fine down you can see if you examine them closely with a hand lens. Aspen and cottonwood buds, a favorite food of ruffed grouse, have a sticky, resinous covering instead. Finally, some buds, like those of hobblebush viburnum, are naked, just tightly folded leaves enclosing an embryonic stem.
I like to remind myself of the explosive vitality pent up in these intricate little packages. At this time of year I cut some twigs and place them in a jar of water. After a week or so, the red maple flower buds are starting to swell and open, the crimson tips of the stigmas poking out.
Flower buds usually open first in the early spring, since a tree can more easily afford to lose flowers than leaves should another hard frost come. All trees in our northern climate have inhibitory compounds in their buds and seeds that keep them from sprouting till enough freezing days have passed to reduce the risk of damage from frosts.
Red maple and elm are our first trees to flower, usually early in March. Although this has been a mild winter, I can’t resist the impulse to force these twigs by bringing them into the warmth of my house. The constellations of tiny red star-like blossoms that burst from my indoor red maple buds in late February cheer me with the news that spring is not far off.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.