Buds: The Promise Rhododendron of Spring

Compleat Naturalist: Tree Buds

Rhododendron in Winter by Uwe Vogel

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura and Hal Mahan

“Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle…a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb opening to the light, a bud straining to unfurl. And the anticipation nurtures our dream.” ~Barbara Winkler

As naturalists, we are constantly observing. Even in the “dead” of winter, there are things to see and capture our fascination.

We take for granted that, come the warmth of spring, flowers will bloom and leaves will unfurl. But where are they now? How do these delicate parts of shrubs and trees remain undamaged, even in the coldest of temperatures?

When you are out on a winter walk, have some fun by focusing on buds. Notice that they appear in different shapes and sizes. Some are large and full, like the flower buds of evergreen Rhododendrons. The buds of trees are quite variable in size and shape, and are a useful tool in identifying the tree. The American beech has buds shaped like long narrow cigars. The buds of horse chestnut and buckeye trees are large and fat.

Notice how the buds are arranged on the twigs. Are they paired and opposite each other? There are only a few trees with opposite buds, and an easy way to remember them is to think of the words “MAD BUCK.” This is a fun phrase to help you recall these trees: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, BUCKeye.”

Buds are generally covered with scales in varying shapes and arrangements, which help to protect delicate embryonic leaves or flowers. Take a close look! The color can range from the deep wine red of striped maple, to the mustardy yellow of bitternut hickory. Some have many overlapping scales. Others have just two scales facing each other like praying hands (tulip tree). Some scales are covered with a sticky substance to add further protection (poplar).

Some buds are naked, without scales at all! These naked buds are generally covered with dense hairs like a warm winter coat. Witch hazel, hobblebush and staghorn sumac have naked buds. Also look at the twig for bud scars. After the bud opens later in the season, there will be linear scars on the surface of the growing stem for some years to come, allowing you to judge how many years of growth there have been in a length of twig.

A fun winter activity is to cut and gather branches of winter shrubs and trees, and bring them indoors to “force” them to bloom. After cutting your branches, take a hammer and gently mash two inches of the cut end. This will help the branch absorb water faster. Then take the branches and submerge them in water completely, for several hours. Bring the branches out of the water, and stand them upright in a bucket of water. Place them in a cool room that has some sunlight.

Keep a close watch! After a week or so, the buds will begin to swell. Two weeks after you cut them, the buds will be ready to burst. So make a pretty arrangement in a warm room, and enjoy!

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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