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Posts Tagged ‘Gray Birch Catkins’

You’ve seen a lot of buds on this blog but you haven’t seen many buds from a sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua). Massachusetts is the northern limit of their natural range but luckily I know a spot at the local college where two or three trees can grow thanks to the radiant heating they get from a massive wall of brick that they grow beside. As buds go these are big; this one was maybe the size of a blueberry, and may be green, red or orange, from what I’ve read. Buds with many scales that overlap like shingles are called imbricate buds. A gummy resin often fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof on northern trees, but I’m not sure how the sweetgum buds waterproof themselves. I can see tiny hairs at the edge of the scales, so maybe that has something to do with it.

The identification of the sweetgum trees came easily because of their strange seed pods. I’ve read that Native Americans used the hardened resin from these trees for chewing gum. The resin was also used in a tea to calm the nerves and, when powdered and mixed with shavings from the tree, was used as incense by the Maya. The resin is said to look like liquid amber, and that’s where the first part of the scientific name, Liquidambar, comes from. I’d love to see it but I doubt the local college would let me tap their trees.

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. The lilac bud (Syringa vulgaris) in the above photo is another good example of an imbricate bud. I was surprised by the lack of gummy resin on these buds. I hope the flower or leaf buds inside aren’t harmed because of it.

The hairy, two part valvate bud scales of the Cornellian cherry are always open just enough to allow a peek inside. The gap between the bud scales will become more yellow as the season progresses and finally clusters of tiny star like yellow flowers will burst from the bud. These buds are small, no bigger than a pea. Cornelian cherry is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (usually March).

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. Just as the plant flowers the ground under it will be littered with these hairy caps for a short time.

Many plants protect their buds with hairs, like the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) shown above. Plants that protect their buds in this way have naked buds, and the hairs take the place of bud scales.  

Red oak (Quercus rubra) buds usually appear in a cluster and are conical and reddish brown. I like the chevron like pattern that the bud scales make. Red oak is one of our most common trees in New England but in the past many thousands were lost to gypsy moth infestations. It is an important source of lumber, flooring and fire wood. The USDA says that red oaks can live to be 500 years old.

Do you think of buds when you see a catkin? A catkin is really just a long string of tiny flowers arranged in a spiral, surrounding a central stalk. Though the bud scales on many of the male alder catkins (Alnus incana) are usually a deep winter purple, this year they seem to be more red. That doesn’t matter because soon they will start to lengthen and become more pliable before turning shades of pink, orange, red and brown. Once that happens they will start to open.

There is no mistaking what you’re seeing when male alder catkins start to open. The bud scales are on short stalks, and when they open they reveal the tiny green yellow flowers they have protected all winter long. Bushes full of them are easily one of the most beautiful spring sights.

Each bud scale has three male flowers beneath, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers covered in yellow pollen. The flower parts are clearly visible in this photo but even though it is heavily cropped they are still tiny. The entire catkin is only about 2 1/2 inches long.

The male flowers of gray birch (Betula populifolia) also appear in catkin form but instead of hanging down they often point straight up, as this one was doing.

The female flowers of gray birch turn into big, drooping clusters of seeds, which are also called catkins. You can see the size, habit and shape difference between the male and female catkins if you compare the large female catkins to the much smaller male one seen in the upper right corner of this photo.

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) buds, like lilac and others, are imbricate buds with overlapping bud scales. 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. Though small the buds are beautiful, and one of my favorites.

The chubby little green and purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are also one of my favorites, but I don’t see them very often. Since they have more than two bud scales they are imbricate buds.

Some of the smallest buds I know 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. I know the tree in the photo well so I know that its blossoms will be white. Hawthorn berries are called haws and are said to have medicinal value. Native Americans mixed the dried haws and other fruits with dried venison and fat to make pemmican.  The dried flowers, leaves, and haws can be used to make a tea to soothe sore throats, and hawthorn also shows promise for treating heart disease.

Big, black and pointed mountain ash buds (Sorbus americana) often look like they have a single cap like bud scale but they actually have several overlapping scales which are quite sticky. You have to look closely at buds to see what is really going on, so it helps to have a loupe or a macro lens.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides) is supposed to be a very invasive species but they’ve been used for years as landscape trees so the genie has been let out of the bottle and now there is no stopping them. The Norway maple’s terminal bud and stem are larger than the sugar maple’s, and its bud scales are fewer and colored a pleasing maroon. Sugar maples have twice as many bud scales and they are brown. Norway maple terminal buds are also rounded while those of sugar maple are sharply pointed. Norway maple is native to eastern and central Europe and western Asia, from France east to Russia, north to southern Scandinavia and southeast to northern Iran.

Box elder (Acer negundo) is another member of the maple family and its buds 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 pruinose.

Terminal buds appear on the end or terminus of a branch and nothing illustrates that better than the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). The larger, pointed, very scaly bud is flanked by smaller lateral buds on either side. The lateral buds are usually smaller than the terminal bud. Sugar maple twigs and buds are brown rather than red like silver or red maples. I know that the sap is running so these buds will be swelling up and getting bigger before too long. In 2019 New Hampshire produced a below average 148,000 gallons of maple syrup but the season was 5 days shorter shorter due to cold weather. The average price per gallon in 2019 was $31.00. The record price per gallon was $40.70 in 2008.

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 and they have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins. They are one of the first to open in spring so I watch them closely beginning in March.

I realize that these bud posts probably don’t excite everyone like they do me but I hope people will look beyond all the imbricate, valvate and other fancy scientific labels and simply see the beauty. If the beauty that you see leads you to wonder and mystery, then you can start trying to find out more about what you’ve seen. Some think that beauty comes in the form of snow capped peaks or far off landscapes and indeed it does, but beauty also comes in the form of tiny tree buds. In fact beauty is all around you and the more you look for it the more of it you’ll see. Here’s hoping you’ll see plenty.

If you are open to being taught by nature, go listen to the trees. ~Kenneth Meadows

Thanks for coming by.

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