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Posts Tagged ‘Sweetgum Seed Pods’

This relatively warm weather and rain we’ve had for weeks now have left me with a longing for spring but it is only January, so about this time every year I scratch my itch for spring by looking at buds. Being able to identify trees and shrubs by their buds can come in handy, especially in winter, and it is a skill that any serious nature lover should have in their bag of tricks. It adds another dimension to nature study and makes it even more interesting. The bud shown above is from a speckled alder (Alnus incana,) and it has two bud scales. Bud scales protect the bud within and keep it from freezing. Buds with just two (sometimes three) scales are called valvate buds. The scales meet but usually do not overlap.

A catkin like this one on the same speckled alder is simply a long string of buds, in this case male buds, and each purple bit is a bud scale. I took this photo because it shows the gummy resin that fills the spaces between the scales of many buds. This makes the bud waterproof and this is important, because if water reaches the bud and freezes the bud will die.

This Cornelian cherry bud is another 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. 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. It has a long history with mankind; its sour red fruit has been eaten for over 7000 years, and the Persians and ancient Romans knew it well.

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.

I saw something on the magnolia that I’ve never seen before; seed pods. At first I thought it was some type of gall.

I’ve done bud posts before but this year I wanted to show some buds I hadn’t shown before. The alder is one and this sweetgum bud is another. If you know anything about sweetgum trees or how cold it can be here in New Hampshire you are probably wondering how I took a photo of a sweetgum bud without driving south. After all, the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) reaches the northernmost limits of its natural range along the coast just above of New York City, but these trees grow near a massive wall of brick and that keeps them warm enough to thrive here in the cold. 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.

The identification of the sweetgum trees came easily because of their strange seed pods. I’ve read that the infertile seeds found in each of these gummy pods are a source of shikimic acid, which is one of the main ingredients in Tamiflu, so if you had a flu shot and get through winter without getting the flu this year you can thank a sweetgum.

The leaves of the sweetgum seem almost evergreen but I’m really not sure if they are or not because they aren’t supposed to grow this far north. I wonder if the radiant heat from the mass of brick they grow near has them completely baffled. By the way, if you have green plants by the foundation of your house in January the same thing is happening, but it’s your furnace instead of the sun that supplies the radiant heat. It’s fairly common in cold climates.

The oddest thing about the sweetgum tree in my opinion is its strange flattened branches. The first description of the sweetgum tree came from Spanish conquistadors who wrote of its use by the Aztec chief Montezuma. He was using the tree’s resin to flavor a pipe full of tobacco, which was another plant the Spaniards had never heard of. It must work well because it is still used to flavor tobacco today.

The lilac buds (Syringa vulgaris) in the above photo are another good example of imbricate buds. Lilac buds are very red and in spring once the plant begins taking up water again they can swell quickly enough to notice, if they’re regularly watched. I’ve watched lilac buds in spring since I was just a small boy and it has always been one of my favorite things to do in the spring. They aren’t swelling yet but it won’t be long before spring is here.

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. 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. 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.

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. Native Americans made fences around their settlements with brambles and thorny branches like those from hawthorns. They also made very sharp awls and fish hooks from hawthorn thorns.

A bud I most look 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.” In May they are one of the most beautiful things in the forest.

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.

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. Even squirrels don’t like these trees; last fall over several days I watched five or six squirrels cut all of the unripe seeds from a Norway maple. In just a few days the ground under the tree was littered with them and there wasn’t a seed left on the tree. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

For those who can’t see or don’t want to look at small buds fortunately there are big buds on plants like rhododendron. It also has imbricate buds that are large enough to see without magnification. Bud scales are modified leaves and 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.

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.

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

Thanks for coming by.

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