Winter is a good time to look at some of the finer details of trees and shrubs -- their buds, for example.
Buds!? Bo-o-o-oring, you say?
Not really, if you take the time to look closely. What's more, the buds can disclose a plant's identity as well as predict what the upcoming growing season holds in flowers and fruits.
Each bud contains the beginnings of a shoot or a flower partially developed and compressed into a compact package. Buds appear along stems at distinct locations, called nodes. A node is where a leaf was attached last summer, and just above this point of attachment is where this winter's buds appear. In some plants, including fragrant sumac and black locust, the node is apparent from the leaf scar even though the bud itself, is invisibly buried within the stem.
Noting the arrangement of buds along a stem is the first step to identifying a leafless tree or shrub in winter. On some plants, buds arise directly opposite each other. On others, buds are "alternate," that is, arising on alternating sides of the stem.
Because buds can grow to become stems, that opposite or alternate bud arrangement is mirrored in a plant's stem arrangement. Not always, though, because not all buds awaken into stems in spring and because some stems die and fall off.
Most deciduous trees have alternate buds. So if you happen upon a leafless tree in winter with opposite buds, you can pretty much bank on its being an ash, horsechestnut, linden, maple, or dogwood.
Now take a closer look at the buds of some trees and shrubs. They vary in color, size, shape, and texture: witness the elongated mahogany buds of [filtered word] willow, the brown velour buds of pawpaw. See how some plants -- viburnums, for example -- have naked buds, enveloped only by the first pair of leaves. Buds of most plants are protected by scaly covering.
Notice also that mature plants have two kinds of buds. Come spring, the long, thin buds expand into stems. Flower buds are usually fatter and rounder. Look at how dogwood flower buds stand proud of the stems like buttons atop stalks. And look at a peach branch with its compound bud: a single, slim stem bud in escort between two fat flower buds.
Those flower buds are useful in predicting the flower show or fruit crop you'll enjoy this year. Or bring indoors some stems with flower buds, put their bases in water, and enjoy an early flower show.