Branches, Buds, & Bark — Winter Tree Week

Branches, Buds, & Bark — Winter Tree Week

Being able to identify common trees is not only fun, it also helps to connect us to our surroundings and communities. But what do you do in the winter when there are no leaves present? You learn to identify trees by the 3 B’s — Branches, Buds, & Bark.


A tree’s silhouette or its branching pattern can be helpful in identification. Now bare against the sky, the true shape of a tree is often revealed.

Take the branching pattern of a Black Locust, zig-zagged and disorderly, with no predictable pattern.

Often you can see the silver glint of Sycamore branches before realizing what you’re looking at. 

Although scarce since the Dutch Elm blight, there are still a few Elms who still stand. Elms are perhaps the easiest to identify by silhouette, as their shape takes on a floral look, like a bunch of flowers plopped into a vase. 

The leaf scars that remain on a branch also provide clues to a tree’s identity. Leaf scars are areas where leaves were attached to the branch. 

Take the Black Walnut scar shown above. To me, it has always resembled E.T., but to others, it’s a smiling monkey face. 

Red Maple leaf scars are “U”-shaped and Sycamore leaf scars completely encircle the new bud.  


Naturally Curious by Mary Holland

Nature Anatomy by Julia Rothman



The dormant buds formed in July or August are clues to what the tree will reveal in the Spring.

Look how the buds are arranged on the twigs of your tree. The ones along the sides of the twig are called axillary or lateral buds. The bud at the tip of the branch is called a terminal bud. Each species of tree has its own distinctive terminal bud. 

American Beech are thin, long and pointed. Red Oak and other oaks have a cluster of terminal buds instead of one. A bright, mustard yellow terminal bud is a Bitternut Hickory, and if the bud is almost black in color, Black Ash.

As you investigate, consider the size, shape and color of the buds. What about texture? Are they smooth? Furry? Sticky?

For a fun activity, bring home a few budding twigs from a tree. Place the freshly cut twigs into a vase of fresh water in a warm spot in your house. See if your buds open!


The Tree Identification Book by George W.D. Symonds

Winter Tree Finder by May Theilgaard Watts


A tree’s most stalwart characteristic. This type of identification is also helpful when the leaf canopy is too high up for proper recognition, no matter the season. If you practice, you begin to see patterns. Beech bark has distinctive smooth, gray bark. Shagbark hickory is just that, shaggy. White ash’s arrow shapes can be easily remembered by A = Arrow = Ash. Hornbeams or “musclewoods” will make you think you stumbled into Planet Fitness with their ropey, brawny, muscle-like appearance. Some say that the bark of older Black Cherry trees looks like burnt potato chips. And you’ll know when you come across a Honey Locust…look, but don’t touch! Its thorny armor keeps everyone far away.


Bark by Michael Wojtech, One Small Square: Woods by Donald M. Silver


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Morgan Bulkeley’s Big Berkshire Trees — Winter Tree Week

Morgan Bulkeley’s Big Berkshire Trees — Winter Tree Week

Over 50 years ago, prolific writer and avid naturalist Morgan Bulkeley contributed more than 750 articles for the Berkshire Eagle. Under the title, “Our Berkshires,” Bulkeley illuminated the local history, people, and nature of our richly beautiful Berkshire home. 
During the years of 1968-1970, Bulkeley challenged local readers to contribute to a list of the largest and most notable trees in the Berkshires. Responses were swift and steady and 100+ trees were ultimately recorded.
I’d like to find out if any of these trees are still standing. To document the trees still in existence and the fates of the fallen soldiers, or even add a new tree to the list!
I’m asking for your help!
Below you’ll find a spreadsheet of the trees Bulkeley compiled. If you’re a resident (or curious visitor!) to any of the towns listed, head to the location and do some investigating. Keep in mind that references to certain names, homes, & locations may have changed over 53 years and may require some extra sleuthing. (And avoid private property!) Email your findings to:
If you have a new big tree to add to the list, check out this link for instructions on how to measure basic tree circumference and email your findings to:
In an effort to rekindle and deepen our connection with our natural communities, as well as honoring a man who truly understood what it meant to appreciate earth’s gifts, get outside and look around! Let’s go on a Berkshire county-wide scavenger hunt – a vegetation investigation!

We created a spreadsheet of the 1968-1970 Big Trees that Bulkeley compiled. If you have knowledge of a particular tree still standing, let us know! 

Print out the spreadsheet and join in the hunt! Let us know what you find. Email

 Berkshire Eagle Archives 1968-1970

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Conifer Confusion — Winter Tree Week

Conifer Confusion — Winter Tree Week

Spruce, Pine, or Fir? 

Not gonna lie, for the longest time I called all evergreens pine trees. Conifers solely existed in Christmas tree world, and countless holidays went by without realizing that the oh, Tannenbaum I was trimming was actually a fir — tannenbaum meaning fir tree German.

Until the fateful day we brought home a blue spruce for Christmas…

One of the reasons we annually lug a real live tree into our living rooms is the smell, right? That unmistakable sharp, sweet, freshness that conjures up Christmas days of yore, and this tree was no exception — fragrant, shapely and silver-tinged, a holiday shrub that dreams are made of.

And then the needles began to fall, and the dream turned into a nightmare. Have you ever stepped bare-footed on a Lego? Yea, it’s like that, BUT SHARP. Like, an overlooked fragment of glass sharp, just nestled in the deep fibers of your carpet, lying in wait and no vacuum can touch them.

This spruce abuse stuck around for a few seasons and we swore off anything but firs for Christmases to come. But it was this rude introduction that got me to pay attention to evergreens in the first place.

So, How Do You Tell?

The Conifer family include pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks, larches (these are not evergreens), and true cedars. They all bear cones, most have a single, straight trunk, a conical shape, and appear dark green in color. In order to tell them apart, we’ve got to get a little but closer. 

Shake Hands with the Tree

Go on, grab a branch and introduce yourself.

Pine needles are long. They grow in clusters of two or more and the number in a packet tells you the kind of pine. Red pine has packets of two needles, pitch pine three, and if a twig bears needles in packets of five, it’s a white pine. I remember that because “white” has five letters.

PINE: Playful Packets of Pointy Pins

Let’s meet someone else. Spruces can be stand-offish, even stiff, so take care when sidling up to say hi. Pull off a needle, and roll it between your fingers (I dare you). If it rolls easily, it’s a spruce. Careful not to prick your fingers! 

SPRUCE: Spiny, Stiff, Sharp as a Syringe

Fir trees are much friendlier. Fir needles are softer and flat, and cannot be rolled between your fingers. If it feels flat and doesn’t roll easily, it’s a fir.

FIR: Friendly, Flexible with Flat needles

Hemlocks seem shy to me, their branches always drooping towards the earth. Hemlock needles are flat and short, with blunt tips. These needles are attached to the twig by a small peg or “stem,” such that when you pluck one off, it is left behind. 

HEMLOCK: Hanging Hems Have Stems!

Hopefully, this helps clear up any conifer confusion you may have had. Remember, the best way to get to know a tree is to introduce yourself!

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Go For A Sky Swim — Winter Tree Week

Go For A Sky Swim — Winter Tree Week

When you were a kid maybe you passed a summer afternoon laying on your back, without a care in the world, finding shapes in the clouds. For most of us, we can’t remember the last time we slowed down enough to do this (or if we could let our imaginations still “find” anything at all)!

Now that I’m old and grown, I like to refer to this practice as sky-swimming (it’s gonna be a thing, mark it!). This is something I often find myself doing in the warmer months and 90% of the time it’s in my backyard. Right around sunset — which is conveniently the witching hour for small children — I holler at my husband that I’m going for a swim and head out the backdoor. He knows what I mean, my neighbors probably not so much. ::shrugs::

In the winter, with the absence of leaves, looking upwards at the forest canopy can make you feel like you dove headfirst into a topographic map. The contour lines of the bare branches stretch across a sea of blue. 

Take a minute.

Lay down. 

Look up.


Let your imagination unfurl.

I’m not asking you to go full Wim Hof here. Pretend you’re Elsa, or better yet, grab a blanket or tarp, lay down, and “go swimming.” It may be cold, but I have yet to find a simpler way to shift perspective.

I’ve noticed this year that the kids have been following suit and even prompting me to do this on our hikes. As much as I love sit spots, it can be a tough expectation for kiddos. Sky swimming gives them something to imagine while shifting their perspective. And sometimes it’s the only moment they’re quiet for the entire day — I wish I were exaggerating.

Let’s Go Burl-lunking! — Winter Tree Week

Let’s Go Burl-lunking! — Winter Tree Week

Tree Warts, as my 7-year old calls them, are actually burls. And what exactly is a burl, you ask? A burl is a gnarly-looking, extraneous growth found on a tree.

Scientists are still not sure what causes these bulges to occur, but have theorized that a burl may be made when a tree is experiencing stress, injury, virus, or fungal infection. Other scientists believe that certain trees may have a genetic predisposition to forming burls as a result of certain environmental factors, like pollution or the mineral content in the soil.

Although they seem ugly on the outside, burls are highly prized by woodworkers who know what magnificent designs are often found on the inside. Kevin Smith, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, published a piece in 2012 on burl biology in the newsletter of the Massachusetts Tree Wardens’ and Foresters’ Association. Next to his article was a report detailing several Massachusetts burl thefts, including one where arboreal bandits climbed 30 feet into a “very old sugar maple” to steal two burls from either side of the trunk. 

I’m no burl-poacher, but I will steal a word from Berkshire cave-explorer Clay Perry. Instead of going spelunking, why not try burl-lunking! Skip the cavernous outcroppings, and instead hunt for the burliest growths. Grab a ruler, dive through the winter forest and see who can find the biggest, baddest, burl. (I’m making this up as I go folx, as we do). 

Some great places to go burl-lunking are Golden Hill Town Forest in Lee, Old Mill Trail in Hinsdale/Dalton, Dorothy Frances Rice Wildlife Sanctuary in Peru, Greylock Glen in Adams, Kennedy Park in Lenox and Bullard Woods in Stockbridge. 


Want to recreate the swirlicious beauty found on the inside of the burl? Try out one of the painting techniques below! Do a Google image search “inside burls” for inspiration. 

Burl Fork Painting


  • Heavier paper or cardstock
  • Paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Forks

Cut out a loose cross-section of a tree. Do it freehand, trees are all shapes & sizes! (I saved the scraps for another project.)

We taped our paper wood cookie down on the table and started to paint a small section. Then while the paint was still wet, the kids grabbed a fork and created their designs!

Milk Swirl Painting


  • Shallow dish
  • Milk (Fuller fat milk works best)
  • Food Coloring
  • Dish Soap
  • Q-Tips
  • Paper

Fill a shallow dish with milk just so the bottom is covered. Choose 3 or 4 colors of food coloring and add a couple of drops of each in the center of your dish. 

Carefully pour one drop of dish soap into the center of the food coloring and observe what happens!

The kids then dipped their q-tips in soap and swirled the food coloring into different designs before it all mixed together.

We dipped a few of our paper scraps into the swirls before they were thoroughly mixed.

 Sources: The Biology of Burls

What is a Tree Burl

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Winter Tree Week

Winter Tree Week

 It’s no secret. Trees are my favorite. Nature and the outdoors are my jam, but trees hold the wooden key to my heart. Strong, silent, and crucial to life-sustaining oxygen, like Richard Power’s wrote, ““This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”

If you love ’em so much, why don’t you marry them?” Maybe I will friend, maybe I will. Google marry a tree, it’s a thing.

Sylvan nuptials aside, we all stop and take notice of these stoic sentinels during their colorful fall transformations, when we’re seeking the summer shade, and maybe even during their spring rebirth.

But it’s during stick season, that trees are often overlooked. When we slow down and take notice, we can discover the subtle changes of the dormant dendrites as they branch out under the winter sky, quiet, lying in wait for the earth’s axis to tilt towards the sun.   

This week we’re celebrating the trees of winter, taking time to notice the typically overlooked. This observation requires you to up your perception from low-res to high, to perceive things that may have been invisible to us, and to “break bud” with our tree friends, as we all wait for the promise of spring. 

 This week, join us as we go for a sky swim, go burl-unking, learn the 3 B’s of winter tree ID, hunt for Bulkeley’s big Berkshire trees, clear up conifer confusion, and notice, shift, & rewire our mindset with tree silhouettes. It’s gonna be tree-mendous!

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