One of the Hudson Valley’s most abundant resources is trees. But how much attention do we pay to them, aside from their cooling shade, their autumn colors, and the leaves they litter on the ground? Spring is a good time to get to know the trees personally, as they wake up and stretch from their long winter’s rest.
If you have kids, they may enjoy the following tree activities, from brewing tea to twisting string to learning how to tell a birch from a beech. Even if you don’t have kids, you may find yourself intrigued by these ways to interact with nature.
Buds: It used to drive me crazy that I’d wake up one morning at the end of April, look out the window, and see baby leaves on the trees. How did that happen? The last I noticed, the twigs were bare. Then one year I started the habit of examining the tree buds in late March and throughout April. Every few days, I’d go back to the same trees in my yard, and I’d see how the buds were expanding and lengthening.
Buds are actually formed in the summer, when the tree is growing, and they stay on the twigs all winter. The covering of one or more waxy scales serves to protect the embryonic leaves and flowers within. As the weather warms, and the daylight increases, the tissues inside the bud begin to grow. At the bases of the bud scales, which are usually brown or gray, you’ll see the green of new growth. The shape of the bud will change, and at some point the tips of the leaves will peek out. Soon they will begin to unfurl.
Each species has its specific bud style. Oak twigs have clusters of buds at the end of each twig. Basswood buds are dark red, with a bulge on one side, and they turn gooey if you chew on them. Elm buds open early, in late March, and before leafing, they produce little floppy pink and greenish flowers that don’t look like flowers. Here is one of many online resources to help you identify tree buds: http://www.trees-id.com/buds-1.htm.
String: Once you have identified basswood or elm, you can harvest a few twigs and learn how to make string, also known as cordage. In spring, when the sap is rising, it’s easy to peel the bark from the twigs. You want the green, moist inner bark, which has to be separated from the dry, grayish outer bark. Handrolled cordage is beautiful to look at, pleasant to handle, and surprisingly easy to make, once you get the hang of reverse wrapping. Here are details: https://www.wildwoodsurvival.com/survival/cordage
Sap: Speaking of sap, by the time you read this, it may be too late to tap a maple tree, but you can prepare for next year. In the Hudson Valley, maple sap tends to run in March, as long as it’s freezing at night and above 40 degrees in the day. Boiling down syrup is an arduous task, so I have generally stuck to drinking the sap, which tastes very faintly sweet and thrillingly alive. Native Americans are said to have used sap as a nutritious spring cleansing drink. Tapping a single tree is a simple process, requiring a drill, a spout (available in local hardware stores), and a plastic bottle to fit over the spout. For tapping instructions, see https://tapmytrees.com
Pine needle tea: Evergreen conifers have needles high in rot-resistant Vitamin C. You can easily harvest them to make a fragrant and tasty tea. White pine has a mild flavor, and it’s easy to identify, with its long, slender needles, arranged in bundles of five along the twigs. Pick a big handful of needles, place them in a cup or jar, fill with boiling water, cover, and steep for ten minutes to half an hour. Adding chunks of twig will produce a stronger, somewhat resinous taste.
Sweet birch twigs: Both the sweet (or black) birch and the silver (or yellow) birch have inner bark that tastes like wintergreen. Sweet birch can be identified by its smooth, largely unfurrowed, dark gray bark with raised horizontal lines. Silver birch has shiny silvery-yellow bark that curls off the trunk in narrow shreds. If you can reach a twig, scratch a section down to the green inner bark, and sniff. The minty scent is unmistakeable. Chew on the twig for a burst of flavor.
Identification: It’s a long-term project, but learning to identify trees is an absorbing endeavor that engages the mind and the senses, providing a sense of intimacy with nature. You can, of course, get the app that identifies plants when you aim your camera at them, but getting to know the bark, buds, leaves, and growth patterns of trees will bring you closer to these splendid creatures.
For identification, I recommend buying a physical book rather than relying on the Internet. Audubon’s field guide to trees is good for beginners, with a mix of photos and detailed descriptions.
Meditation: If you have a spiritual practice, you might enjoy meditating with your back against a tree. There’s something about the upsweep of the trunk supporting you that adds depth to the experience. If you don’t have a meditative practice, you may still find it soothing and strengthening to lean against a being that weighs thousands of pounds yet manages to stand upright, as we do.
Here is a visualization that will help you bond with the tree and bring a taste of nature into your bones:
Imagine your torso is the trunk of a tree. Picture your legs and toes extending into the ground, sending out roots that anchor you while absorbing water and minerals from the soil. Feel the nutrients rising up through your body and flowing through your arms and head, out through your fingers and hair, which are like leaves drinking in the mineral-rich water. Let the sunlight soak into your leaves and manufacture glucose, which then pours down through your trunk to the roots, enabling them to grow. Envision the steady repetition of this cycle, and then let it interact with the rest of the natural world: the birds nesting in your branches, the soil fungi helping your roots communicate with other trees, the wind pruning away dead branches, the humans coming to sit reverently at your feet.