April 06, 2020
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Buds and twigs hold key to a tree’s identity

I went on a hike a couple of weeks ago to look at buds and twigs on trees. Now, before you think I was suffering from some spring fever related malady, I should explain. Buds, the new beginnings of the spring growth, dormant in winter, grow along the length of twigs and sometimes at the end. Twigs and buds also hold the key to a tree’s identity. Once you know how the buds grow differently from one tree to another, you can identify the tree species. I discovered all this first-hand on a short, rewarding hike in Sunkhaze Meadows.

It was organized as a group hike by Jan Beckett, president of the Friends of Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Under a blue, March sky more than a dozen of us gathered at the entrance to the Oak Point Trail in the refuge on the County Road in Milford. Jan welcomed us and the leader of the trip, Lee Kantar, his wife, Danielle and their infant daughter, Ella.

Lee is the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s deer and moose biologist and he knows his tree species. Deer and moose among other animals browse on trees all year, with deer particularly relying on tree browse heavily in winter for survival. That would be one of the subjects he would be talking about, he explained before we started.

In addition to deer-feeding habits, he said, “Some of the things we’ll be talking about are the form of the tree or the shape, where each species prefers to grow, whether its shade tolerant or not and what type of soil and water conditions it prefers. If we know these things and come across a tree we can’t identify, those are some of the conditions we look at.”

But, the main reason we were there was to learn about identifying trees by their buds and twigs. Lee led us down the trail and soon stopped at the first tree of interest. We all gathered around as he explained the parts of the twig.

The first rule in twig observation was pretty simple.

“What do you see on this twig?” he asked as he bent a branch down so we could all get a closer look. “Are the buds on it opposite or alternate?”

The reason that’s important is because only a few types of trees and shrubs have buds growing on opposite side of the twig, he said. Those trees are in the maple, ash and dogwood families. If you know that, you can narrow your choices in how to identify the tree. If it’s an alternating bud, it can’t be a maple, ash or dogwood. If it’s an opposite growing bud, it is one of those.

The twig we were looking at was lined with alternating buds down its slender length. Lee narrowed the identification of this particular twig to the American elm growing near an area of frozen bog. Because of the bark, twig, buds and the elm’s proximity to water, it was positively an elm.

We then moved on down the snow-packed trail to the next challenge in tree spotting. This time we stopped at a shrub that had us all puzzled. Some of us took notes as Lee explained what we were seeing. He said it was a speckled alder, a shrub that has both male and female parts, catkins and cones. It, too, had alternating buds down the length, but with the catkins, speckled gray and dark brown bark and form like a shrub, we knew it was a speckled alder.

After a few more stops at various trees, it started to feel like a real scavenger hunt to see how many trees we could identify. There were some middle school children along with their parents or grandparents. One man, Nate Ewer, director of Inter-Church Ministries in Bangor had his three grandkids along.

The kids seemed to really gravitate toward the subject and this one boy, Dexter Canning who came along with his grandfather, retired teacher Gordon Canning, from Dexter, took an interest in my magnifying lens. I let him use it to get a close-up look at some of the buds. We became quick friends after that he and his grandfather and I hiked together from tree to tree.

Lee stopped and talked about one interesting tree in particular, the tamarack. It is most commonly recognized in late fall as an evergreen that isn’t. Its needles turn yellow and fall off in autumn unlike all other evergreens. Typically they prefer wet areas like bogs. In winter and until the new needles grow back the twigs are bare except for these little rows of knobby buds and cones.

Another interesting tree is the quaking aspen. Lee pointed out to us the rows of alternating buds, then, talked about some features that are unique to this tree.

“The quaking aspen is actually able to clone itself,” he said. “We can see how if we look around for young aspen shoots in the vicinity.”

We all found a few and he explained how it’s a fast growing tree and regenerates by sending shoots out of the ground from its roots. In fact if you want to recover an area from a clear cut, plant aspen and cut the main trunk after a few years. The tree’s response is to send more clones up out of the roots. Cut those and more grow.

After a few more practice tries at spotting hardwood trees like gray birch, beech, balsam poplar and shrubs like wild raisin, we turned to the differences in the evergreens, red and black spruce, balsam fir, red pine and eastern white pine. Lee’s easy-going manner and casual conversation style made it all pretty easy to understand. Too soon, we turned around to head back to the gate. It had only been a couple of hours, but I felt like I could identify a lot more trees than I could when I first showed up.

This might sound strange, but I play this game sometimes with my friends when we go hiking. It’s called, “how-many-things-can-you-identify-in-this-scene?” The game’s rules are simple. You and your opponent try to see who can name the most plants, rocks, animals, birds, mosses, geographic features and trees within your range of vision. Everything counts, lakes, rivers, mountains, ponds. No one keeps score, it’s just for fun.

I can’t wait to play the game after learning about twigs and buds on this hike.

Maybe we should keep score.

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