Reading the Winter Landscape

Adapted from our eNews

November 2017

As winter moves into New England and our landscapes go into hibernation for the season, the leafless trees of our woodlands can blend into a mass, each even less distinctive than usual. And without any wildflowers to discover on the forest floor, what is there for a plant-lover to see in the winter? Plenty! Winter tree and shrub identification is notoriously tricky, but very rewarding once mastered. Learning to distinguish trees via bark and buds opens the eyes to a new way of looking at a landscape, bringing out beautiful details that previously blended into the background. Take the pond edge woodland scene below— to the untutored eye it may seem a tangle of branches above snowy ground, but much more is discernible on close examination.


The easiest tree to pick out is the white pine (Pinus strobus) on the right, whose long evergreen needles make it conspicuous among its largely bare deciduous brethren. On the left side of the photo, the large trunk stretching diagonally to the top of the photo is also unmistakable. Notice the vertical striations in the bark, the alternating dark and light gray-brown strips that some say evoke the image of muddy ski tracks on a slope. This is a red oak (Quercus rubra), and this pattern in its bark distinguishes it from its many oak cousins. And finally, take a look at the two young trees whose delicate branching creates an imprint against the blue of the sky. A close inspection reveals the alternating, pointed buds and delicate catkins of a cherry birch (Betula lenta). In the field, these twigs would smell of wintergreen when snapped, a sure way to verify the species.