Northland Nature: The bare winter trees are not so bare
The late December snowstorms gave us wet flakes that coated many of our trees. Spruces and other conifers held the cold covering well, often bending, but not breaking.
The deciduous trees mostly kept the snow, too — some broken branches, but for days after, the woods had a white look, a reminder of the storm. The weather changed and with warming and windy days in the next weeks, most of the arboreal snow has fallen.
We now look out at a bare woods again. It is a great time to take a closer look at the trees and see that they are not really so bare.
The Northland deciduous trees dropped their leaves about the middle of October. It will be mid-May before the new ones foliate the branches again.
As I passed the forests now, I see that there is still plenty on the trees as they stand in their dormant phase. Mixed with the deciduous trees are conifers, which remain green and keep their leaves for the winter. The thin needles can cope with the winter conditions.
Broadleaf trees deal with the cold season in another way. Leaves are the food-makers for the trees, but they are also a source of much evaporation. Cold air tends to be very dry and keeping the leaves would cause much desiccation in the arid days of winter. And so, the trees drop the leaves, mostly.
Looking around in the woods now, I see three kinds of deciduous trees that are still holding brown leaves. The leaves of many ironwoods, sugar maples and red oaks, especially the younger ones, have turned brown and died, but remain on the stems.
Bark, trunks, branches and stems going all the way out to the twigs vary much with different kinds of trees. All are holding buds, clutching the new leaves of next spring in either an alternate or opposite arrangement. Birches are quite easy to discern now with their white bark, but out on the end of the twigs, they also hold the long-shaped male catkins.
The shorter alders in the wetlands also have male catkins on their twigs, but with them are the female "cones" with seeds. Others are also holding seeds from last season. Crab apples that were so abundant last fall still have many, frequently discovered by hungry winter birds.
Sumacs with their tight clusters of red or purple small berries are easy to see along roadsides now, but seem to be avoided by birds.
Box elders, ashes and basswoods have their brown seeds hanging from the branches, sometimes so thick that it may appear to be leaves. We might remember the winged samara seeds of maples from last summer and autumn as they spun off the trees.
Box elder, a type of maple, still holds such seeds. Ashes also have samaras, but theirs are straighter, and cling to winter branches. Green ash seems to hold them longer than does black ash. Many basswoods continue to have their seeds — sort of a "hand glider" arrangement on trees at this time.
We are in mid-winter. It may be cold and the forest looks empty, but many trees have their plans for the next season. And the bare winter woods is not so bare.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods," "Webwood" and "In a Patch of Goldenrods." Contact him ℅ Katie Rohman at email@example.com.