Each year at around this time I get an urge to start looking at the buds of our trees and shrubs to see if there are any signs of swelling. I could look at a calendar to see when spring begins but I prefer watching the plants in the forest, because they’re rarely wrong. Since I read in a local paper that maple sap had started flowing because of a warm December I had to go see for myself. The terminal buds of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) shown in the above photo are quite large and can fool you into thinking that they are swelling because of spring sap flow but no, they’re this way all winter.
Why do I care about watching buds swell? Because beautiful things come from them, like the newly opened bud of the shagbark hickory in the above photo shows. This photo is from a previous blog post of nearly 2 years ago. Unfortunately I won’t get to see this in person again until about mid-May but since it’s one of the most beautiful sights in the spring woods, it’s worth waiting for.
If you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is a shagbark hickory bud just look at the bark. It’s obvious where the name shagbark comes from.
Hickory buds are some of the largest buds I’ve seen but some of the smallest belong to hawthorns (Crataegus) and the cherry red hawthorn bud in the above photo could easily hide behind a pea. There are over 220 species of hawthorn in North America, with at least one native to every state and Canadian province. In New Hampshire we have 17 species, so the chances of my identifying this example are slim to none. The closest I can come is Gray’s hawthorn (Crataegus flabellata.) I know the tree in the photo well so I know that its blossoms will be white.
If you can’t identify a hawthorn by its buds then its thorns will help. On this example they were about 2 inches long and just as sharp as they look.
Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some have just one scale called a cap, and some buds are naked, with none at all. Buds that have several scales are called imbricate with scales that overlap like shingles. A gummy resin fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. This is especially important in cold climates because water freezing inside the bud scales would destroy the bud. The lilac bud (Syringa vulgaris) in the above photo is a good example of an imbricate bud.
Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) buds are also imbricate buds. It’s interesting that almost everything about the blueberry is red except for its berry. The new twigs are red, the bud scales are red, and the fall foliage is very red.
Buds with just two (sometimes three) scales are called valvate. The scales meet but do not overlap. This Cornelian cherry bud is a great example of a valvate bud. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the scales part to let the bud grow. Some bud scales are hairy and some are covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud.
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (in March) with clusters of blossoms that have small, bright yellow bracts.
Native nannyberry buds (Viburnum lentago) are also examples of valvate buds. These buds always remind me of great blue herons or cranes. I think I might have misidentified several nannyberry berries as shadbush berries earlier last fall, so I’m counting on the buds to tell me for sure what they are. If they look like the above example they are sure to be nannyberry. If it wasn’t so icy right now I’d go and find out.
Magnolia flower buds in botanical terms are “densely pubescent, single-scaled, terminal flower buds.” The hairy single scale is called a cap and it will fall off only when the bud inside has swollen to the point of blossoming.
Red maple flower buds (Acer rubrum) are small and round or oval with short stalks and 4 pairs of bud scales. The bud scales are often purple and / or tomato red. They have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins. Red maples can be tapped and syrup made from their sap but the sap gatherers have to watch the trees carefully, because the sap can become bitter when the tree flowers. I didn’t see any sign of these buds swelling but I hope they will soon. Seeing the hillsides awash in a red haze from hundreds of thousands of red maple flowers is a treat that I always look forward to. Unfortunately I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to capture that beauty with a camera.
Box elder buds (Acer negundo) and young twigs are often a beautiful blue or purple color due to their being pruinose. Pruinose means a surface is covered in white, powdery, waxy granules that reflect light in ways that often make the surface they are on appear blue. Certain grapes, plums, and blueberries are pruinose fruits. Certain lichens like the beautiful smoky eye boulder lichen have fruiting bodies (Apothecia) that are often pruinose.
Another bud I’m looking forward to seeing open is the beech (Fagus grandifolia.) There are beautiful silvery downy edges on the new laves that only last for a day or two, so I watch beech trees closely starting in May. Botanically beech buds are described as “narrow conical, highly imbricate, and sharply pointed.”
I went out to look at buds but never expected to see any of them actually opening on January 30th, so you could have knocked me over with a feather when I found this vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis) with its petals just peeking out of its flower buds. We’ve had above average temperatures every month since November and have been 6 degrees above normal for January, but I think this shrub might be jumping the gun just a bit. It lives in a local park and I don’t know its name, but it’s a real beauty when it’s all in bloom in the spring. Since it’s blooming now the question is will it still bloom in spring?
As if the witch hazel blossoms weren’t enough there were daffodils out of the ground a short distance away, and I started feeling like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. Plants can and do get fooled but not often. Right now most of the signs are pointing to an early spring and even Punxsutawney Phil, the weather predicting groundhog in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania, says spring is right around the corner.
I hope this little foray into the world of buds has left you wanting to go out and start looking a little closer at the branches of trees and shrubs in your own neighborhood. I started looking at our local trees years ago; right after the little paperback booklet in the above photo was published in 1968. I carried it in my back pocket and started trying to identify common trees that I already knew something about, like apples and maples. The booklet is still being published today and costs little, especially if you find it in a used bookstore. It is also online in PDF format, and you can find it by clicking on the word HERE.
Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart. ~Victor Hugo
Thanks for coming by.