In all things of Nature there is something of the marvelous. — Aristotle
Our place on earth wobbles slightly away from the sun. The great provider’s shower of energy is distributed in smaller portions. The air grows colder. It’s a time to wait.
Sweet gum terminal buds
Winter is the season for hunkering down, not for advance. The equipment and supplies for the coming offensive are concentrated in a myriad of micro-bases established at the outward limits of last year’s campaign. These small base camps, clearly visible now that the thick, spent machinery of last year’s effort has been discarded, might be easy targets for any enemy were they not so heavily armored for protection. They gradually bulge with arriving supplies as the season of cold, wind, snow and rain progresses. One imagines there must be great excitement and anticipation inside the armored perimeter of these outposts as the days grow longer again and the early March air begins to warm. The wait is almost over. The time is coming to build on last year’s gains. The time is coming to advance. The time is coming to spring!
This is not the description of the American war effort in Afghanistan or elsewhere, although it easily could be. This is the description of what is going on in the sky between you and the upper atmosphere as the deciduous trees (those that discarded their leaves for the winter) above your head get ready for the great spring offensive. These trees are ready to add another layer. They are ready to extend, and ready to grow. And their little basecamps, better known as “buds,” are swelled to bursting at the armored scales.
But why the winter hesitation? Why all the drama. Why “deciduous?” Why not simply “evergreen?”
Terminal bud of the tulip poplar
Only the creator knows. What we do know is that the creation itself is diverse, and in one of nature’s sundry adaptations, many of our trees have developed the behavior of casting off the leaves of the previous year and entering a state of dormancy through the winter months. Their lives become a cycle of alternating sleep and growth synchronized with the cycles of the
earth as it tilts away and then back towards the sun’s life-giving radiation of energy. The oak, maple, sweetgum, poplar and other leaf-discarding trees do magical things as they participate in this cycle, changing their colors and shedding off parts of themselves that are shared with the earth to replenish its soil. They entertain with their autumn colors and falling leaves in the soft gloaming of life’s summertime party; looking most beautiful, and most giving, in the moments before sleep. Then they wait.
As spring arrives, these melodramatic trees are roused from sleep by the increased warmth of a nearer sun and erupt amazingly to transform tiny buds into large, green leaves and colorful flowers. They grow again, enriching the atmosphere with their exhalations. Our deciduous trees make a dazzling show of it as they cycle more obviously with the earth and its position in space.
Silver maple flowers
Unfortunately, one of the most beautiful parts of the show, the buds and flowers of early spring, often go unnoticed. Small and mostly above our heads, often overlooked, are the fascinating and varied ways the deciduous trees have to protect the precious supplies in their base camps of growth. Under the outer shell or scales of terminal buds are the jelly-like cells of the apical meristem, capable when called of adding another layer of “tree” onto last year’s layer. Trees don’t grow by stretching. They grow by stacking layers upon layers, both in the main stem as rings of girth and in the upper canopy as added extension into the sky.
So this spring I hope you will take a closer look at the small miracle that is the transformation of tree bud into leaf and flower. In Richmond you will always know spring has arrived when the forest blushes crimson with the eruption of red maple buds. This is, in fact, the feature for which this native gets its common name. Flowers on maple trees are small but
beautiful, almost suggesting some exotic species of sea coral.
Slow down and take a look, as I did with my daughter this weekend as she helped me gather these pictures with my I-phone. Seeing the excitement and preparation for spring in the trees around you might just inspire your own great 2013 campaign of growth and expansion.