...heed the buds, pay attention to pattern
Learn to know a plant even in winter. Start by clipping a couple
of twigs from shrubs or trees you know, then sit down with a plant
encyclopedia to compare the real things to their description.
There are specific technical terms to describe every aspect of a
bud or leafless twig, from the density of fuzziness on the twig
("scabrous" has short stiff hairs, while "tomentose" is wooly) to
the arrangement of buds (opposite each other, alternating sides on
the twig, whorled, etc.) to the number and shape of spots where
last year's leaf veins left "bundle scars" within the bud scar.
University of California, Berkley's Herbarium and other schools
Fortunately, gardeners only have to look for and find some
characteristic of each plant that speaks to them, to remember it
always. For instance, we recognize poplar for its very large,
sticky, tip buds and tree of heaven (twig and bud shown below) for
the yeasty smell of a broken twig.
Not all plant encyclopedias include twig- and bud descriptions,
drawings or photos. When we're trying to put a name to a leafless
plant, we use:
- Michael Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,
- Gary Hightshoe's Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Urban
and Rural America,
- John Farrar's Trees of the Northern United States and
Canada, and sometimes
- the specialty books and sites called twig keys
(Virginia Tech's, as an example)
- Articles elsewhere on this site which have bare twig photos,
What's Coming Up Issue 86 pruning guide; Search for (plant
We also use the USDA's plant data base for line drawings of
twigs, or use an Internet Search engine clicked to "Images" so we
can compare our twigs to the results to find a match.
Below: Sometimes twigs are not
a gardener's main clue to a
species. Bark is also distinctive.
Learn the scruffy orange of a
Scots pine's (Pinus sylvestris)
younger limbs and it stands
out in any crowd of gray
Growth habits can be telltale of a species, too. We
recognize the bark of an oak but can also look up, and up the trunk
to see that it is holding foliage through winter, confirming the
identification. Seeing the leaves with their pointed lobes we can
also be pretty sure it's a species in the red oak group, probably
northern red oak (Quercus rubra).