Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Great Reveal

As leaves fall from deciduous plants and lush perennial growth withers and fades, look at what is revealed for our examination: hidden things like birds’ nests, identification clues for plants unknown, and surprises of all kinds.

I noticed this week that enough leaves had fallen from my intensely twiggy Viburnum prunifolium that I could see something lodged inside the branches. I was pleased to discover that it was a bird’s nest! Nothing says “Nature loves your garden” like a bird’s nest, right?

Other discoveries I have found over the years include praying mantis egg cases and oak galls stuck to branches, small saplings growing up in the middle of other plants, golf balls half buried in the mulch, and all sorts of things lost and newly found.

One important thing that is revealed when leaves fade is the wonderful collection of identification clues that woody plants have to offer. Things like:

-          The color of the fall leaves themselves. To me, the soft pale yellow of persimmon leaves is quite distinctive and it allows me to easily distinguish a persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) from a black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). During the summer the two trees might be confused as they both have alternately arranged medium green leaves of similar shape.

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

-          Leaf buds for next year are now visible. Some of them are SO clear! The long pointy buds of American beech (Fagus grandifolia), the round plump buds of red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and the oh-look-it’s-an-azalea flower buds. How I adore the rusty buds of the viburnum known as rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum)! In some cases it is so much easier to identify a woody plant without leaves.

The flower bud of an azalea (Rhododendron canescens)

-          Was it a branch or was it a leaf? Compound leaves often deceive people in that they mistake leaflets for leaves. Picture the long leaf of the sumac shrub which is composed of 10-30 leaflets. If those were really leaves then come fall they would drop and the stick holding them would remain as a branch. Instead what happens is that while a few leaflets might drop initially, eventually the hold thing falls off, revealing that it was simply a leaf after all. The place where it was attached is called a “leaf scar” and it is also useful during winter identification.
Sumac (Rhus glabra) sheds its leaves

So get out there and discover new and exciting things now that those leaves have fallen off! There is so much to be learned, even during the dormant season.

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