Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
December, 2010
Regional Report

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River birch is hard to miss with it's shaggy bark.

Identify Plants in Winter

Although it often seems that as soon as autumn comes and the leaves begin to fall, trees and shrubs lose their character, becoming mostly identical and hard to identify, this is far from the truth. Most woody plants have striking characteristics with which to identify them in winter.

Use Winter Characteristics
It will certainly take a little more work to learn to recognize different species since you don't have the leaves or flowers to make identification easy, but taking a walk in the woods with a hand lens and field guide to winter characteristics can be great fun and extremely satisfying.

Tools to Identify

The easiest tools to start identifying plants with in winter are the buds and twigs. Fruits sometimes come in handy as well, but you can't always rely on this since some fruits ripen in spring and summer.

Once you learn to identify trees and shrubs in winter, the tools you've employed can be used all year long, except during the peak of growth when buds elongate and open up. Most winter buds are formed sufficiently by July to use them for identification.

Twigs have a multitude of characteristics to look at, such as polished, rough or downy surfaces. Their shape in cross-section can vividly identify some species. For example, blue ash has a distinctly angled stem. The corky wings on burning bush set it apart from all other shrubs.

Very fine, slender twigs are characteristic of birches and alders, where stout stubby stems leave no doubt that you have a sumac, walnut or hickory. Twig color, such as the purple of wild plums and the lime green of boxelder, is an unmistakable key to identification, as is the peanut butter scent of tree-of-heaven and the wintergreen scent of yellow birch stems.

Leaf Scars
When leaves drop, they often leave distinctive scars. The shape and placement of the leaf scars, as well as distinct bundle scars indicating the old channels of sap conduction between leaf and twig, can help you determine exactly what species you're looking at. You may need a hand lens to see the bundle scars, but they occur in a variety of patterns that can help you separate plant species.

A plant with thorns or spines is usually easy to identify. For example, a plant with paired spines will always be a black locust in our part of the country. Three spines indicate a honeylocust, and one small thorn beside paired buds is almost always a buckthorn. One spine near a solitary bud is indicative of hawthorn, pear or apple and crabapple.

More Buds
Buds, plainly visible on most twigs, are embryonic branches or shoots with miniature leaves and flowers. These, too, are quite useful in identification because they come in all sizes and shapes, from fuzzy magnolia buds to sticky horsechestnut buds to large, rough hickory buds to slender, pointed beech buds.

So, next time you take a walk in the winter landscape, be sure to challenge yourself on plant identification. And don't forget your field guide!

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