This months spotlight, written by Wildwatch volunteer, Kaye, is all about winter tree buds —proving we can identify trees without leaves and flowers!
Many people believe deciduous trees are hard to identify in winter. Not necessarily so! Some of our native species have very distinctive twigs and buds. Get to know these, and even without clues from other winter features, it’s quite straightforward to name a tree, or at worst place it in the right family.
The members of the Betula family – Hazel, Alder and Silver Birch – are a doddle. Before their leaves fall, next spring’s male flowers, their “lambstail” catkins, are already clearly visible. By now two of them can be found in full flower: Hazel fluffy and greenish-golden, Alder lanky and red. Add in the distinctive bark of Silver Birch and the blackening cone-like Alder seed-heads, and there’s hardly any need to examine the leaf buds. But look at them anyway, and you’ll see how the buds grow alternately on either side of the twig, each one pointing in the direction its section of twig grew. The next section of twig grows at a slight angle away from it, giving a gentle zig-zag effect.
Lime has the same alternating pattern but its buds are rounded, less noticeably scaly, and a distinct red colour.
Ash is one of the easiest. The buds are matt black, arranged one at the tip then in pairs along very smooth grey or greenish-grey twigs, each pair at right-angles to the next. Feel the twig just under the point where the buds emerge, and notice that the rounded twig flattens out as though it needs to create extra support for the buds. Keep an eye on these buds as spring advances, so that you don’t miss the beautiful flowers that emerge just before the leaves.
The buds of the Maple family are arranged in the same pattern of opposite pairs, though not always at such precise right-angles to one another. Fat little Sycamore buds are particularly distinctive because even in the depths of winter they’re quite a bright light green, occasionally tinged with red. Native Field Maple with small greyish buds and similar but much larger-leaved Norway Maple, green to pink, are less distinctive, but you’ll recognise them easily enough once you’re familiar with the shape of Sycamore.
Elder is another species with buds in opposite pairs, but these are smaller, usually brown ones on brownish twigs that have irregular indentations in their bark. Already in January you’re likely to find some buds with dark blue-green leaflets starting to break through.
Horsechestnut bears the biggest and most prominent buds of all, rich glistening brown, pointing assertively away from the stem, and by now feeling distinctly sticky to the touch. Under each new bud, last year’s leaf scar is clearly visible, in the shape of a little horseshoe. Its leaves are some of the earliest to open, and when they do you can see why the poet Craig Raine compares them to small green vultures.
Oak produces small, brown, rather scaly buds in knobbly clusters at the tip of each twig. Any buds growing along the length of the twig are alternate, but with more of a tendency to spiral round the twig than the Betulas. Beech, in the same family as Oak, has very slim, sharply-outward pointing, brown buds, often so thin and dry-looking that you wonder whether a recently planted sapling can possibly still be alive. As the buds approach leaf-burst, the brown colour intensifies so that the whole crown of a mature tree can shine brown in the sun.
Willow – a large and complex family – is very variable but the various species have in common slim buds growing closely pressed against their twigs. The twigs of some species are totally flexible and look sappy even in the depth of winter. By now, on a sunny day these trees will show varying shades of green, yellow and pink against the sky. Goat Willow (Salix caprea) and Grey Willow (Salix cinerea) will very soon declare themselves by putting out their fluffy, silvery “pussy willow” catkins well before there is any sign of leaf. Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) and related species wait until their leaves are out before they flower.
Of course this doesn’t cover all of the tree and shrubs at St Nicks – in particular we haven’t touched on the wide-ranging Rose family which includes most of our fruit trees. Maybe next year….
Take a break from studying individual buds, and look at the woods from a vantage point such as the grassland side of the meadow. Look at the colours of the dormant trees, even on a dull day, then as spring advances, notice how the colours intensify and change as the buds get ready to burst. As you watch the varying browns, pinks, silvers and golds of branches as they start to awaken and flower, you’ll never again fall for all that poetic stuff about spring being green!