May 27, 2019
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Faded beech leaves rattle in Maine’s wintry breezes

Greg Westrich | BDN
Greg Westrich | BDN
Long dried and faded, brown leaves cling to beech saplings throughout the winter. The beech is one of few hardwood trees that retains its leaves well into the cold months of the year.

GLENBURN — An uneven breeze puffed the woods, fluffing hemlock boughs and drifting snow pellets around my ankles. The only sound was the rhythmic crunching of my steps on the hard-packed snow.

The trail swung through alternating stands of red pine, oak, hemlock, and beech. Jig-sawed patches of texture and color kaleidoscoped in and out of focus. In the winter, my attention often narrows to the crunch, crunch, crunching of my steps; I am lulled into a walking sleep by the rhythm.

I hardly noticed the trail beginning to climb to the right of a steep slope of shale. The thin layers stood out vertically, weathered rough and irregular. In the mouldered gaps between the worn shale and atop the ridge, tall straight hemlocks stood with snow-loaded branches drooping down.

The trail followed the slope of the ridge where a slushy rill divided the hemlocks from a stand of beech. The beech saplings bowed their bleached gray limbs out toward the trail. Their dry, brown leaves clattered against one another in the slight breeze. The dry sound shook me from my reverie.

Beech trees hold their leaves. In the fall the leaves yellow, then dry to a liver-spotted brown — but they don’t fall.

Many beech leaves are stripped away by wind, rain, or snow so that by mid-winter the trees are mostly bare. A few isolated leaves cling on, high in the canopy, waggling alone in the wind. But the saplings — close to the ground and protected — keep their leaves.

The dead leaves’ petioles wrap tightly around the twigs with a new bud hidden underneath. In the late spring, the quickening of the bud pushes the dead leaf from the branch. Many trees set their buds in the fall so the trees can leaf out quickly in the spring, but the old leaves have to be gone before the new leaf buds can set.

Having new buds exposed all winter is risky. They can be eaten by animals or damaged by the cold. It’s a tradeoff: Set the buds in the fall and get growing more quickly in the spring or protect the buds and leaf out later. The beech and oak choose to protect their buds.

I stood in the snowy woods while looking at the beech saplings with their leaves. Even knowing why that beech retain their leaves, it still seemed to me that deciduous trees should’’t have leaves in the winter.

And conifers should have their needles. That’s what I was taught as a child, but every fall my road is covered several inches deep in rust-colored white pine needles. About a third of the needles drop each fall.

And the larch, common in boggy areas, lose all their needles. These trees don’t seem to know that they aren’t fitting neatly into our categories. Or maybe they just have other priorities than to conform to the over-simplified version of the world that humans inhabit.

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