Springtime at the Morton Arboretum: This bud's for you

Published3/11/2009 12:01 AM

Thank goodness for Ed Hedborn. He's my go-to guy when I need some good news.

Take the other day, when the forecast called for continued cold weather and - yippee - yet more snow. I called Ed, the Morton Arboretum's manager of plant records, who is frequently out and about the grounds, studying plants.


"Ed, is there anything, anything at all that looks like spring?" I pleaded, trying not to whine. There was a long pause at the other end of the phone line - as a scientist, Ed does not stretch the truth. But, perhaps sensing my desperation, Ed allowed that he might have seen a "hint of yellow on a witch-hazel."

OK, it's bud time. Not the "this one's for you" variety, but the "maybe there's hope for spring" sprouting type. Maybe if I look very closely at the trees and shrubs in my neighborhood I can spot some buds. Hope springs eternal.

This calls for some winter tree identification skills, and again, Ed is the man. Knowing how to identify a tree without its leaves is useful not only for bud watchers, but also for garden planners. Remember how you wanted to buy a tree just like that gorgeous blooming one in the neighborhood parkway you saw last spring? What the heck was it?

Ed says the first thing to observe is the overall shape of the tree. Vase-shaped trees are typically elms, broad wide-spreading trees are usually white or bur oaks, whereas symmetrical pyramidal trees can be pin oaks or little-leaved lindens.

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These are the classic shapes of trees at maturity; younger trees do not necessarily display their ultimate form. Ed notes that young trees are often more regular or symmetrical than mature trees.

"Like people, trees can get middle-aged spread and can go bald up at the top with age," he said.

Ed says your next big question should be, "Is there fruit of some kind on or near the tree?" Big, long, curly pods probably indicate a honeylocust. Shriveled up crabapples - no surprise - a crabapple.

"You might have to look for fallen fruit at the base of the tree," Ed said.

Variation in tree bark is the third big clue to tree identity. Back in kindergarten, we all just pulled out the Sienna brown crayon to color in a tree trunk, but the texture and hue of tree bark is quite varied. Mature tree bark can range from the mottled multicolored sycamore to the peeling bark of river birches.

Overall shape, fruit and bark are the primary ways to identify a tree, "then it starts to get technical," Ed warns. It's bud time, and it can get pretty hairy.


Or scaly. Even naked.

Bud variation is significant, but uniquely characteristic of trees. Buds can be round (red maple, hawthorn), sharp and pointed (beech, sugar maple, red oak); enfolded in scales (elm, tulip tree); or protected with a hairy coating (magnolias). Some "naked" buds appear on shrubs such as witch-hazel.

The arrangement of buds on trees also is an important clue to the tree type. Most buds are alternately dispersed, i.e. a staggered effect, along the twig. The list of trees with opposite arrangements of buds is shorter and includes maples, dogwoods, buckeyes, horse chestnuts and ashes. A third, but much less common pattern is a whorled arrangement as seen on a catalpa.

As the bud grows, so does the twig, branch and leaf. Hence, if buds are arranged alternately, so are the branches and leaves. Buds can enclose a leaf, flower, twig or all three at once. You'll have to wait for spring when the buds swell and open to see the surprise inside.

Ah yes, spring. Tell us about that witch-hazel again, Ed.

• Cathy Jean Maloney is an avid gardener and a writer for the Morton Arboretum. Find more information on buds and trees at the arboretum's Web site, mortonarb.org.

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