Blog Archives: WildEssex

#WildEssex Walks: Trees in Winter – buds and bark

Two years ago, in a very different world, we ran our last midwinter tree walks around the KGV. The blog linked here focussed on the buds and twigs, and gives a good idea of the features to look for on a selection of the species to be found. Of course, the identification of trees in winter also uses a further series of characteristics, from fallen leaves, shrivelled fruits and the nature of the bark, elements we brought into our #WildEssex walks this month. Here is a selection (photographed during our recce in much more pleasant weather than the fog of the Saturday walk!).

ASH – in addition to its unmistakeable black buds, mostly in opposite pairs, with flattened twig tips, Ash also has smooth, pale bark, often covered in lichens, and usually has some of the bunches of keys from last summer perched in its boughs.

OAK – the plump, chestnut-coloured buds are clustered at the tips of the twigs that arise from the branches that come from the trunk, covered in deeply ridged bark, the fissures more or less continuous, running down the trunk. Sometimes, in older specimens, the trunk is divided, by coppicing or pollarding, especially on old ownership boundaries where distinctive trees were used to define those boundaries legally, by way of a ‘perambulation’.

BEECH (upper two) and HORNBEAM (lower two) – The elongate, pointed shape of the buds of these two species is similar, but those of Beech are set at an angle to the twig, while those of Hornbeam are curved into the twig.  Beech often has dead leaves still attached in midwinter, and smooth, silvery bark, with raised lines, rounded in profile, running down it. Hornbeam bark is similarly smooth, but the trunk is usually fluted, like a rippling muscle.

And then to three fast-growing, often small species, good at colonising suitable habitats:

WILD CHERRY has clusters of buds borne on short, woody pedestals, and peeling, copper-coloured bark formed into distinct hoops around the trunk…

… while SILVER BIRCH has lovely white bark, delicately drooping branch tips, and often has remnants of last year’s seeding catkins at the same time as the coming summer’s catkins are starting to emerge…

… and ELDER has deeply ridged grey bark, often covered with mosses. It is also the first of our trees to burst into leaf, a true harbinger of Spring.

ELM is often distinguished as much by its dead stems, the victims of Dutch Elm Disease, as by its living features. But on a living trunk, the herringbone branching pattern of the twigs is usually apparent, as often are the main branches clothed in corky wings of bark.

Another tree bedevilled by disease is HORSE CHESTNUT, especially worrying in view of its rarity in its native Caucasus. The big, swollen buds with sticky scales are well known, but the horseshoe-shaped leaf-scars and smooth bark breaking into a patchwork of plates are equally distinctive.

Similar in name, but very different (and completely unrelated), the SWEET CHESTNUT is often noticeable by its halo of dead leaves lying on the ground, as they take several months to decay away. Its plump buds sit on ‘shelves’ on the ridged twigs, and the bark of a small tree is smooth and silvery, in marked contrast to an older tree  where the bark is strongly fissured, twisting around the trunk.

Two of our most distinctive winter trees are WHITE POPLAR, with its graceful, upswept branches, whitish twigs and buds, and hoops of large, diamond-shaped lenticels on its bark….

… and the smooth, grey bark, large, turgid buds, almost fit to burst, and beautiful bud-scales,  edged in maroon and fringed in white, of SYCAMORE.

Finally, mention must be made of the evergreens, historic adornments to the grounds of the former Wivenhoe Hall. The red-boughed SCOTS’ PINE (top) is one of only three native conifers in Britain, CEDAR-OF-LEBANON (middle) is another species threatened in its native Middle Eastern home, and HOLM OAK (bottom), native to the Mediterranean basin. But the presence of leaves or needles doesn’t necessarily make identification easier: it is always worth getting to know their distinctive fruits, tree shapes and bark. No rest for the botanist, even in midwinter!


#WildEssex New Year Plant Hunt 2022

Each year, the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland organises a New Year plant hunt, encouraging botanists and other interested folk out of their midwinter slumber to see what plants are flowering in a walk lasting between one and three hours. This year, we (the newly branded #WildEssex) made our contribution around the Wivenhoe Waterfront…

It is a very simple survey, an example of citizen science. But based on the principle that enough monkeys with enough typewriters and enough time will produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare, then enough bleary-eyed plant hunters producing enough lists will eventually produce statistically valid results. And important results, linked to the serious issues for the natural world (and us!) around climate collapse, helping to shape local, national and international efforts to reducing the human footprint on our planet.

First up, and one of the most interesting, if diminutive flowering plants: Early Meadow-grass. Until a few years ago, this was known only from the extreme south coast of Britain, but presumably under the influence of climate change, it has spread right through the Essex coast, and now Suffolk and Norfolk.

Neatly bookending our walk, the final new species we found, Jersey Cudweed, has a very similar recent history, colonising the block paving of Wivenhoe within the last decade.

In total we found 35 species in flower, slightly more than last year’s total of 30. One cannot read too much into the difference: this winter has been exceptionally mild (indeed we were walking on the warmest New Year’s Day in recorded history, itself a worrying statistic) but there were a dozen pairs of keen eyes, whereas last year under Covid restrictions we were only two…

Most of the species were of course wholly to be expected, including annual plants of disturbed areas (aka, rather perjoratively, ‘weeds’) such as Common Field Speedwell, Petty Spurge, Annual Mercury, Groundsel and Red Dead-nettle.

Also expected were the flowers of Gorse: ‘when Gorse is in flower, kissing is in season‘ – it flowers all year round, fortunately for us but especially for the bees that were actively seeking sustenance in preparation for the next cold snap.

But there were also totally out-of-season flowers. Ragwort, on the sea wall, and Sea Aster with Common Cord-grass on the salt marsh were especially notable, together with Ox-eye Daisy, Yorkshire Fog and Wild Carrot in two of Wivenhoe’s new no-mow, no-sow greenspaces, alongside the more expected Daisy and Dandelion, the insect-sustaining plants that no-mow May is made for.

Another small group of flowering species was those which habitually use sheltered environments such as walls: Trailing Bellflower, Greater Periwinkle and Ivy-leaved Toadflax, three examples of plant refugees from more southern montane zones.

Finally, there was a notable concentration of plants with geographical names indicating their origins from other parts of the world: Jersey Cudweed and Mexican, Guernsey and Canadian Fleabanes. All very expected in an urban locality with plants from all over the world grown in gardens around us, but in the context of our survey, perhaps a clarion call that all the world must work together to tackle the problems on our planet.

Naturally, although a botanical trip, we didn’t overlook other wildlife. Our massed sharp eyes found the scarce fungus Cord-grass Ergot, a large caterpillar on Sea Beet that we think might be the larva of the Small Square Spot moth, and brightest of all, a huge number of Rosemary Beetles, the mobile jewels that adorn many a garden Rosemary or Lavender, mostly paired and in the process of making more beetles. All a very hopeful sign for a wildlife-filled 2022!