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How Trees Spend The Winter

( Originally Published 1927 )



Nine out of every ten intelligent people will see nothing of interest in a row of bare trees. They casually state that buds are made in the early spring. They miss seeing the strength and beauty of tree architecture which the foliage conceals in summertime. The close-knit, alive-looking bark of a living tree they do not distinguish from the dull, loose-hung garment worn by the dead tree in the row. All trees look alike to them in winter.

Yet there is so much to see if only one will take time to look. Even the most heedless are struck at times with the mystery of the winter trance of the trees. They know that each spring reënacts the vernal miracle. Thoughtful people have put questions to these sphinx-like trees. Secrets the bark and bud scales hide have been revealed to those who have patiently and importunately inquired. A keen pair of eyes used upon a single elm in the dooryard for a whole year will surprise and inform the observer. It will be indeed the year of miracle.

A tree has no centre of life, no vital organs corresponding to those of animals. It is made up, from twig to root, of annual, concentric layers of wood around a central pith.

It is completely covered with a close garment of bark, also made of annual layers. Between bark and wood is the delicate undergarment of living tissue called cambium. This is disappointing when one comes to look for it, for all there is of it is a colorless, slimy substance that moistens the youngest layers of wood and bark, and forms the layer of separation between them. This cambium is the life of the tree. A hollow trunk seems scarcely a disability. The loss of limbs a tree can survive and start afresh. But girdle its trunk, exposing a ring of the cambium to the air, and the tree dies. The vital connection of leaves and roots is destroyed by the girdling; nothing can save the tree's life. Girdle a limb or a twig and all above the injury suffers practical amputation.

The bark protects the cambium, and the cambium is the tissue which by cell multiplication in the growing season produces the yearly additions of wood and bark. Buds are growing points set along the twigs. They produce leafy shoots, as a rule. Some are specialized to produce flowers and subsequently fruits. Leaves are extensions of cambium spread in the sun and air in the season when there is no danger from frosts. The leaves have been called the stomachs of a tree. They receive crude materials from the soil and the air and transmute them into starch under the action of sunlight. This elaborated sap supplies the hungry cambium cells during the growing season, and the excess of starch made in the leaf laboratories is stored away in empty wood cells and in every available space from bud to root tip, from bark to pith.

The tree's period of greatest activity is the early summer. It is the time of growth and of preparation for the coming winter and for the spring that follows it. Winter is the time of rest—of sleep, or hibernation. A bear digs a hollow under the tree's roots and sleeps in it all winter, waking in the spring. In many ways the tree imitates the bear. Dangerous as are analogies between plants and animals, it is literally true that the sleeping bear and the dormant tree have each ceased to feed. The sole activity of each seems to be the quiet breathing.

Do trees really breathe? As truly and as incessantly as you do, but not as actively. Other processes are intermittent, but breathing must go on, day and night, winter and summer, as long as life lasts. Breathing is low in winter. The tree is not growing. There is only the necessity of keeping it alive.

Leaves are the lungs of plants. In the growing season respiration goes on at a vigorous rate. The leaves also throw off in insensible vapor a vast quantity of water.

This is called transpiration in plants; in animals the term used is perspiration. They are one and the same process. An average white oak tree throws off 150 gallons of water in a single summer day. With the cutting off of the water supply at the roots in late fall, transpiration is also cut off.

The skin is the efficient "third lung" of animals. The closing of its pores causes immediate suffocation. The bark of trees carries on the work of respiration in the absence of the leaves. Bark is porous, even where it is thickest.

Look at the twigs of half a dozen kinds of trees, and find the little raised dots on the smooth surface. They usually vary in color from the bark. These are lenticels, or breathing pores—not holes, likely to become clogged with dust, but porous, corky tissue that filters the air as it comes in. In most trees the smooth epidermis of twigs is shed as the bark thickens and breaks into furrows. This obscures, though it does not obliterate, the air passages. Cherry and birch trees retain the silky epidermal bark on limbs, and in patches, at least, on the trunks of old trees. Here the lenticels are seen as parallel, horizontal slits, open some-times, but usually filled with the characteristic corky sub-stance. They admit air to the cambium.

There is a popular fallacy that trees have no buds until spring. Some trees have very small buds. But there is no tree in our winter woods that will not freely show its buds to any one who wishes to see them. A very important part of the summer work of a tree is the forming of buds for next spring. Even when the leaves are just unfolding on the tender shoots a bud will be found in each angle between leaf and stem. All summer long its bud is the especial charge of each particular leaf. If accident destroy the leaf, the bud dies of neglect. When midsummer comes the bud is full grown, or nearly so, and the fall of the leaf is anticipated. The thrifty tree withdraws as much as possible of the rich green leaf pulp, and stores it in the twig to feed the opening buds in spring.

What is there inside the wrappings of a winter bud? "A leaf," is the usual reply—and it is not a true one. A bud is an embryo shoot—one would better say, a shoot in miniature. It has very little length or diameter when the scales are stripped off. But with care the leaves can be spread open, and their shape and venation seen. The exact number the shoot was to bear are there to be counted. Take a horse-chestnut bud—one of the biggest ones—and you will unpack a cluster of flowers distinct in number and in parts. The bud of the tulip tree is smaller, but it holds a single blossom, and petals, stamens, and pistil are easily recognizable. Some buds contain flowers and no leaves. Some have shoots with both upon them. If we know the tree, we may guess accurately about its buds.

There is another popular notion, very pretty and sentimental, but untrue, that study of buds is bound to over-throw. It is the belief that the woolly and silky linings of bud scales, and the scales themselves, and the wax that seals up many buds are all for the purpose of keeping the bud warm through the cold winter. The bark, according to the same notion, is to keep the tree warm. This idea is equally untenable. There is but feeble analogy between a warm-blooded animal wrapped in fur, its bodily heat kept up by fires within (the rapid oxidation of fats and carbohydrates in the tissues), and the winter condition of a tree. Hardy plants are of all things the most cold blooded. They are defended against injuries from cold in an effective but entirely different way.

Exposure to the air and consequent loss of its moisture by evaporation is the death of the cambium—that which lies under the thick bark and in the tender tissues of the bud, sealed up in its layers of protecting scales.

The cells of the cambium are plump little masses of protoplasm, semi-fluid in consistency in the growing season. They have plenty of room for expansion and division. Freezing would rupture their walls, and this would mean disintegration and death. Nature prepares the cells to be frozen without any harm. The water of the protoplasm is withdrawn by osmosis into the spaces between the cells. The mucilaginous substance left behind is loosely enclosed by the crumpled cell wall. Thus we see that a tree has about as much water in it in winter as in summer. Green wood cut in winter burns slowly and oozes water at the ends in the same discouraging way as it does in summertime.

A tree takes on in winter the temperature of the surrounding air. In cold weather the water in buds and trunk and cambium freezes solid. Ice crystals form in the intercellular spaces where they have ample room, and so they do no damage in their alternate freezing and thawing. The protoplasm stiffens in excessive cold, but when the thermometer rises, life stirs again. Motion, breathing, and feeding are essential to cell life.

It is hard to believe that buds freeze solid. But cut one open in a freezing cold room, and before you breathe upon it take a good look with a magnifier, and you should make out the ice crystals. The bark is actually frozen upon a stick of green stove wood. The sap that oozes out of the pith and heart wood was frozen, and dripped not at all until it was brought indoors.

What is meant by the freezing of fruit buds in winter, by which the peach crop is so often lost in Northern states? When spring opens, the warmth of the air wakes the sleeping buds. It thaws the ice in the intercellular spaces, and the cells are quick to absorb the water they gave up when winter approached. The thawing of the ground surrounds the roots with moisture. Sap rises and flows into the utmost twig. Warm days in January or February are able to deceive the tree to this extent. The sudden change back to winter again catches them. The plump cells are ruptured and killed by the "frost bite."

It is a bad plan to plant a tender kind of tree on the south side of a house or a wall. The direct and the reflected warmth of the sun forces its buds out too soon, and the late frosts cut them off. There is rarely a good yield on a tree so situated.

There is no miracle like "the burst of spring." Who has watched a tree by the window as its twigs began to shine in early March, and the buds to swell and show edges of green as their scales lengthened? Then the little shoot struggled out, casting off the hindering scales with the scandalous ingratitude characteristic of infancy. Feeble and very appealing are the limp baby leaves on the shoot, as tender and pale green as asparagus tips. But all that store of rich nutritive material is backing the enterprise. The palms are lifted into the air; they broaden and take on the texture of the perfect, mature leaf. Scarcely a day is required to outgrow the hesitation and inexperience of youth. The tree stands decked in its canopy of leaves, every one of which is ready and eager to assume the responsibilities it faces. The season of starch making has opened.

Cut some twigs of convenient trees in winter. Let them be good ones, with vigorous buds, and have them at least two feet long. You may test this statement I have made about the storing of food in the twigs, and the one about the unfolding of the leafy shoots. Get a number of them from the orchard—samples from cherry, plum, and apple trees; from maple and elm and any other familiar tree. Put them in jars of water and set them where they get the sun on a convenient window shelf. Give them plenty of water, and do not crowd them. It is not necessary to change the water, but cutting the ends slanting and under water every few days insures the unimpeded flow of the water up the stems and the more rapid development of the buds you are watching. When spring comes there are too many things that demand attention. The forcing of winter buds while yet it is winter is the ideal way to discover the trees' most precious secrets.



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