Have you ever looked at bare deciduous trees in winter and wondered how to identify them without leaves? In schools around the region this winter, many Nature Program students explored the buds and bark of trees, and practiced keying out species. 

Buds with their distinctive size, shape, color, texture and orientation can help us solve the mystery of which tree is which. Bark color and pattern, as well as other special features like the presence of thorns or retaining some dry leaves in winter (oak, beech), also give us important clues. Grayson, a fourth grader at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden shared her experience: “We had a certain branch, and we found the tree that it went to. I think mine might have been hawthorn…wait no it didn’t have thorns. The tree didn’t have leaves [like young beech], so it must have been birch.” Grayson went on to say, “We get to learn science in the middle of the day, and it’s really fun. We learn things we didn’t know about nature. I want to learn how to identify leaves in the springtime!” 

Students model the life cycle of a beech twig, from bud in spring to falling leaf in autumn.

Despite appearances of being dead in winter, deciduous trees are very much alive. Their buds will turn into new leaves, flowers, and shoots as the increasing sunshine and warmth of spring induces them to open. In the meantime, they serve as a nutritious food source for animals in winter. Deer, moose, rabbits and hares subsist on winter twigs; porcupines, squirrels, and grouse eat buds as part of their diets as well. Keep an eye out for signs of browsing as you try to identify trees! 

The ragged twig-ends of deer-browse

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