Studying Buds: A Winter Nature Journal Activity

Colorful red-orange tree buds. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Colorful red-orange tree buds. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Buds can be used to identify a tree or tree species. The color of the bud scales, the number of buds, where the buds are located, and their position are key. These little tightly closed bundles will burst and grow when the weather warms and the growing season gets underway. Even in winter, you can study tree buds and learn to identify various species. This is a nature journal activity you can do right now. So, get out your journal and colored pencils. Use your camera to take photographs. Use your hand lens to see tiny details. You can photograph buds or draw them. If you take cuttings you can take the cutting inside and work in the comfort of a warm room.

A triple tree bud in winter. Photo by Donna L. Long.
A triple tree bud in winter. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Since the plant is dormant and no sap is flowing through its’ vascular tubes, it is safe to cut off a twig or branch without stimulating growth. Pruning stimulates growth. Pruning or cutting a plant in late fall when the weather is about to turn cold is dangerous. The plant could send out tender new growth which will freeze when the weather turns cold. Be careful cutting a twig. Those buds are future fruit or flowers in the next growing season. A few well-thought-out cuttings should be okay.

The next post will be on twigs. Be sure to draw or photograph the twig the bud is attached to help with winter tree identification. Winter botany is a good activity for plant lovers when the growing season is over and our usual study subjects lie dormant. You can learn to identify plants no matter what the season.

Colorful tree buds opening in early spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Colorful tree buds opening in early spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.

What is a Bud?

Buds are found on several parts of a twig or branchlet. Buds form at the end of the growing season. Within the bud is all the tissues needed to grow a shoot, a leaf or flower in the next growing season.

Buds grow on the tip of the twig or along the side. Side growing buds are called auxiliary buds.

On conifer or evergreens, the terminal bud grows into the main stem. Buds located on the side of a twig produce side branches.


Colorful red-orange tree buds. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Colorful red-orange tree buds. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Measuring a Year’s Growth

Last year’s terminal buds leave horizontal scars around the branch. Locating these horizontal scars will show you where the last year’s terminal bud was located. The length from the horizontal bud scar to the tip of the terminal bud will show how much the branch grew in the last growing season.

Some species have false terminal buds. These false terminal buds don’t grow exactly from the branch tip but are slightly off center. You can see these false terminal buds on the tip of the main trunks of conifers or evergreen trees used for Christmas trees and other winter holidays.

Bud Colors, Numbers, and Locations

Some buds are naked without protective coverings. In many species of trees and shrubs, the bud is protected by “bud scales”, which are sturdy modified leaves that protect the tender tissues inside from the elements. Bud sales may overlap or are arranged with the edges meeting but not overlapping.

As you can see from the photographs above, bud can be full of vibrant colors. Reds, greens, and oranges are hidden in the interfolded leaves.

Bes sure to count the bud scales and see how they come together or overlap.

If you would like to share your photos and drawings, tell me in the comments. You can provide a link your image or let me know you would like to upload it to this blog.

The Six Most Common Deciduous Trees

The six most common deciduous trees – Oaks, Maples, Ashes, Beeches, Birch, and Aspens. If you focus on studying the common species of the six tree families, you will know most of the trees you come across in winter.

Oaks – have four or more buds at the ends of its twigs. Buds vary in size.

Maples – have buds that are oval and between 1/4 to 1/2 inches in length. The branches are opposite and so are the leaves.

Ash – the end buds is dark and dome-shaped, the branches are opposite and so are ash leaves.

Beeches – have brown to beige ong, pointed buds unlike other trees.

Birches – have catkins on tips of upper branches and horizontal lines of their bark.

Aspen – the buds are shraply pointed, the tree bark is light-colored and smooth.

Download this Winter Tree Identification Key from the Unisersity of Wisconsin.


Resources for Winter Botany

These books are in my personal research library. All links lead to Of course, these books can be found and ordered by other booksellers.

Winter Botany: An Identification Guide to Native Trees and Shrubs by William Trelease. New York: Dover Publications, 1967.

Winter Weed Finder: A Guide to Dried Plants in Winter by Dorcas S. Miller. Rochester, NY: Nature Study Guild Publishers, 1989.

Winter Tree Finder: A Manual for Identifying Deciduous Trees in WInter by Mary Theilgaard Watts and Tom Watts. New York: Nature Study Guild Publications, 1970.

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