Buds, to use strict botanic terminology, are those little bumps on the ends of twigs that no one ever notices. That is, until one fine day when those little bumps burst open and reveal the spring leaves and blossoms for which we’ve all been yearning. It’s as miraculous as a chick hatching out of its shell.
It’s been a long hard winter, and everyone will be delighted to see the new green leaves bursting forth on the branches — the leaves of this spring, 2015. But when did the buds start incubating those baby leaves? Last spring, a full year ago. At the base of each and every leaf on each and every tree, a tiny speck formed. Those specks, beginning their growth in 2014, eventually become the leaves of 2015.
Buds are protective casings for the embryonic leaves. Most buds have two or more overlapping scales, which are actually modified leaves. The bud scales often have a waxy coating which helps to keep moisture inside the bud so that the young leaves won’t get dehydrated. The bud scales are hard, like an eggshell, to protect the fragile new life inside.
Buds come in a wild array of colors, shapes, and sizes. In winter, when the leaves are long gone, it can be tough to identify trees. You can use the bark for identification, sure, but on most trees bark just looks like, well, bark — brown, craggy and nondescript, so it’s easy to end up (forgive me) barking up the wrong tree. But buds are distinctive — you can’t miss, for example, the pointed inch-long spearheads that are the buds of beech trees. Box elder buds are short, squat and whitish, almost woolly. Oak buds cluster at the tips of twigs. The terminal, or end-of-twig, buds of flowering dogwoods look just like little onions. And the buds of the sugar maple are the color of maple syrup.
In summer, buds hide at the base of the leaves. Month by month, they grow imperceptibly bigger. When winter arrives and the leaves fall off, the buds contain the already formed incipient leaves, curled snugly inside a weatherproof layer of scales. Scratch one of these winter buds with a fingernail in the deepest depths of winter, and you’ll see a hint of green, a preview of the summer that lies within.
Finally, finally, spring gets around to arriving. Longer days, with extra sunlight and warmer temperatures signal the trees to get busy. Sap flows, roots lengthen, buds pop open. Trees, blossoming and leafing with all their might, are actually doing double duty, planning ahead, so to speak. At the base of each new leaf on each tree, a speck is forming: the leaves of next spring, still infinitesimally tiny. But they’re waiting, biding their time until they unfurl to greet us a year later, a guarantee of springs yet to come.
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