Winter Wonders

Hickory bud

Hickory bud


Buds and birds caught our attention on this mild gray winter day. More than 5,000 plants, mostly trees and shrubs, can be found in the 35 acres of Longenecker Gardens. Although we didn’t examine them all, it’s easy to stroll by and get a sense of the diversity of shapes and sizes. In winter, when the leaves are off the deciduous trees, it is the best time to look at and note the structure of trees. Also more noticeable are the patterns of how the trees and shrubs will fill in and add new growth in spring, as the most recent growth of inner and outer branches are generally smoother, often with tints of red or green. Yet another notable feature of trees revealed in winter are the intricate investment portfolios—evident in their buds.

Some buds were immediately obvious, like the pussy willow flower buds with downy white fur-like coating often sparkling with dew and light. The variety of creamy colored, furry, chunky, pointed cigar-like buds that decorate the winter magnolia trees are snugly packed away for the winter. But they don’t look sleepy—because we know the outcome, the magnolia buds appear poised for the big show when they will burst open in spring. Something about the rich, light color and the softness of the magnolia buds and blooms seem to elicit the imagination and emotions of spring celebration and beauty. This was a contrast to the feelings when looking at beech tree buds. Perhaps the severe stiletto-like pointed shape and tight dark-brown scales of the beech buds elicit more of a mood of military armor and impenetrability—beware—do not touch or disturb.

Bur oak bud
Bur oak bud

The rest of the buds we looked at evoked less emotion but still caught our eyes and interest. Oaks, with their whitish-grey knobby toe-like clusters of buds; silver and sugar maples, sporting a variety of dark red and brown tightly packed buds; buckeyes, with grey short-tipped buds; and hickories, with light yellowish buds. The hickory is one of my favorite buds to watch break open in the spring, like a slow dance you can catch in stop motion as the outer leaves peel back in thick rich red ribbons tinged with yellow stripes. Emerging from this base are the unfurling leaves, which grow taller each day like coiled fern-like creatures with bowed heads slowly rising and opening. Something to look forward to—even as spring may still be a bit further than just around the corner.

These buds are evidence of a deliberate process of looking and planning ahead, especially to this crucial time in spring. Why shouldn’t we join in? Buds are not dreamers, they embody the wisdom of great investors and strategists . . . a relevant example to us as we rummage through our receipts and financial lives as tax season is upon us. These buds really are the trees’ highly valued investment portfolios. Protected during this slow season of dormancy and drought by a variety of coverings, some are soft and fuzzy, others have tough hard scales, and others might have a waxy or resinous coating.

Just as ingenuity and evolutionary prudence rule in forming buds, the same must be practiced the time comes for woody plants to distribute their dividends – namely reproduction and the most active growth period, beginning with bud break. After all this work and planning, they aren’t going to just jump out on the first warm sunny day, only to find it was a late winter thaw. Trees and shrubs are not only waiting for warmer, longer, and sunnier days, they are also counting backwards. They are making sure that it is really spring by recognizing the number of shorter, colder days that have passed. This usually prevents the costly mistake of unfurling too soon and freezing leaves and flowers that emerge from buds.

The amount of prolonged exposure to chilling temperatures before subsequent exposure to warmth seems to be the most significant factor in prompting bud break. These environmental cues trigger physiological responses in trees, altering the balance of hormones and enzymes involved in promoting and inhibiting growth. Each species has its own set points, and will break bud at its own time. Likewise, the same species in different climates will adapt to its particular environment. These interactions and adaptations become characteristic of a species through evolution, as beneficial traits survive and are passed on through generations over time—which is why rapid climate change may pose a threat to this multifaceted process.

We left the buds and headed for the cones in the pinetum, toward the northeast end of Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. Along the way, we stopped to admire the variety of winter interest in the shades of red and yellow dogwood bark and the balls of dried hydrangea flowers. The spruce, juniper, fir, yew, and pine trees in the evergreen collection drop some of their leaves (needles)—up to about one-third per year. However, the trees stay full of needles through the winter. Evergreen needles are actually regular leaves that are very tightly folded or rolled. This shape is an adaptation that allows evergreens to conserve water. You can see and feel the very waxy coating that also is an adaptation to save water during dry periods of both summer and winter. The evergreen collection is an interesting place to visit in the winter. Often the branches, thick with needles, will be filled with snow. And they provide shelter and food for many winter birds and other animals.

Chickadees were flittering in and out as we walked through. When we emerged we saw a red-tailed hawk being chased along the garden’s edge by a crow. After the hawk shook off the crow, it settled for a moment on the top of a tall pine in a stand near the outdoor restrooms. Then it soared around the edges of the prairie in tandem with another hawk. We have had a mating pair in the Arboretum, which were nesting in those pine trees. Red-tailed hawks will keep the same mate for life, and may also return and refurbish the same nest site over several years. Was this a pair beginning their courtship? There are diving displays and feeding of the female by the male. We didn’t see any of that today, but it is something to watch for. In the Arboretum and throughout our area, the large owls—barred owls and great horned owls—are the earliest to mate and nest; they will have chicks soon. The red-tailed hawks are next, and they may be connecting with their mates now, or will soon, and have their chicks in early spring.

The red-tailed hawks are very adaptable to our urban environment. Among our neighborhoods and cities, they are finding nesting sites, plus plenty of small rodents and other animals for food. They acclimate to having us around and even make use of our abundant streets and traffic. When I drive down Highway 51, I regularly see two hawks who have learned that there are plenty of small animals there. Another service we provide: the multi-ton wheeled creatures kill or stun the animals as they whiz by, leaving their prey for the hawks. When we do miss a few of them, the hawks can still keep up their activity and hunting skills by going after the ones that scurry out of the way. And abundant light and utility poles provide uniform and reliably spaced hunting perches in all the right places.

Another bird that has proven highly adaptable to both rural and urban areas are turkeys. We usually see plenty as we walk through Longenecker Horticultural Gardens and along the edges of Gallistel and Wingra woods. But today we didn’t see any. I speculated that they may have been discouraged by the hard-packed snow and ice that covers the ground now, which makes it harder for them to get the small seeds and vegetation that they eat. We thought this theory might be supported by the fact that almost everyone saw turkeys on the drive into the Visitor Center. The turkeys were browsing by the edges of the road, where the snow had been removed, and by the driveways and houses toward the Mills Street entrance.

Like the turkeys, this hard-packed snow and ice pose some difficulties for us. We moved slowly and carefully with heads down most of the time, as we made our way along many slippery and icy patches. It would be nice to ski on some newly fallen snow . . . but we enjoyed being outside to see and ponder what’s happening in this less conspicuous but interesting winter season.

—Paul Borowsky