Twigs and buds help identify trees in winter

Most of our deciduous trees and shrubs of the forest are devoid of leaves, blooms and fruits this time of year. Still, it’s fun and even useful to be able to identify trees and shrubs by their other basic characteristics — bark, buds, twigs, leaf scars, branching patterns and the like.

These features stand out more clearly in winter, which prompted several of us Georgia Botanical Society members to go on a “winter tree ID” walk the other day in the Big Trees Forest Preserve in Sandy Springs. The preserve is one of metro Atlanta’s best wild places for seeing outstanding specimens of several native trees and shrubs.

Our leader was Ellen Honeycutt, who lives and gardens in Cherokee County. She told us that she relies mostly on twigs and buds to help her identify trees in winter.

“Trying to identify a tree by its bark can be tricky,” she said. “The bark’s appearance can change as a tree ages. Young saplings often have smooth bark, but the pictures of bark in books usually are from mature trees.”

She pointed out some exceptions to this rule as we walked the trails. The white oak, for instance, has shaggy bark whether it’s young or old, she noted. The American beech and the musclewood tree (so-named because its limbs resemble human muscles) stay smooth as they age.

More reliable for identifying trees in winter are their twigs, which hold the buds that contain next spring’s leaves and flowers. The twigs are unique for each species and come in a variety of shapes, colors, textures and patterns. Red maple twigs, for instance, are slender, glossy and a colorful red. (Red maples are blooming now in much of Georgia.) The twigs of the boxelder, the red maple’s cousin, are stout, smooth and covered with a waxy film that gives them a shiny green to purple color.

Each tree species also has its own characteristic buds. Those at the tip of a branch are called “terminal” buds. Those on the sides of twigs are called “lateral” buds and may be arranged in opposite, alternate or whorled patterns depending on the species.

Learning to identify these basic tree characteristics, I discovered, can make a stroll through the forest on a winter day much more enjoyable.

IN THE SKY: The moon will be last quarter on Sunday, rising about midnight and setting around midday, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer. Mercury is low in the west just after sunset. Venus is low in the east just before sunrise. Mars is very low in the west just after dark. Mars and Mercury will appear very close to each other on the evening of Feb. 8. Jupiter is high in the east just after dark. Saturn rises out of the east just before midnight and appears near the moon Saturday.

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