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Winter Silhouettes

Posted: January 23, 2012

An important component to winter tree identification is the shape or silhouette of the tree. The juxtaposition of the dark tree against winter snow or sky provides new "views" to learn your trees.

When snow covers our landscape, winter can provide stark contrasts – black or shades of gray against a background of white. Although not seen as often as they were in earlier generations, silhouettes were a common way of “picturing” a child or ancestor. Every person’s silhouette has subtle, yet quickly recognizable differences.

Silhouettes are common in our winter landscapes. Trees stand barren and dark against the snow covered hillsides or open fields. Just like silhouettes of people, trees standing against the snow or winter sky (an alternative as snow has been lacking) provide wonderful, engaging images to explore and serve to enhance identification skills.

To successfully identify trees by their profiles there are few tricks that will enhance your skills. First, it is best if you are seeing the tree as an individual. As more trees crowd your view, it is difficult to discern individual features.

Second, learn where trees naturally occur in your landscape. Some trees are common in fencerows, abandoned fields, stream bottoms, or even our yards.

Third, what do you look for as you study silhouettes? Every part of the “image” provides information. The trunk, branch angles, twig thickness and arrangement (alternate or opposite), seeds and fruits, seed stems, flower buds, and even leaves, which may hang on until spring (for example pin oak and beech), add information to the silhouette.

Maples are common yard trees. In silhouette, they show lots of variation. When you are relatively close, their opposite branching pattern is clear among the twigs. (Relatively few of our native Pennsylvania trees have opposite branching. They include maples, ashes, dogwoods, viburnums, which are mostly shrubs, and horse chestnut and buckeye.) Maple limbs and twigs, for the most, are uplifting, reaching toward the sky; however, box elder, also called ash-leaf maple, tends to have drooping or erratic branching patterns, but these are most often near wetter areas, another clue. Norway maple, a non-native tree has similar patterns, but twigs are heavier and, often in winter, the stems from last year’s seeds remain.

Ash, another opposite-branched tree, sends its twigs at the top of the crown straight toward the sky, and the twigs are clearly coarser. Here, too, you might see the stems from last year’s fruit still hanging from twigs, and if it is a male tree (yes there are both genders) the male flowers may appear as clumps on the end of branches. A common tree that shares a profile similar to ash is yellow poplar, whose branches lift up, but the twigs are alternate in arrangement. In this species, the winter crown often retains some conelike structures that held last year’s seeds in the canopy pointing straight up.

Using both location and shape is one way to identify a silhouette is sumac, an easy tree to learn, which often stands along field edges. Its twisted stems, along with its few, coarse, uplifting branches topped with large seed heads are very evident. A more difficult tree to discern in the field edge might be black cherry; sometimes its trunk is curved and twisted and often doubles or triples originating from one stump. In this location, it is not like its forest grown cousin. Its branches are fine and very dark; they appear to intertwine and cross back and forth. Those twigs toward the ends of the branches seem to sweep or point toward the ground. Black walnut is also common in fencerows. Its stems, at a distance, might look a bit like those of cherry, but the branches are heavy, thick, and uplifting, giving the tree an open appearance.

Learning trees in the winter landscape is challenging even when you are close to them and have opportunities to study individual tree structures. Many people are content to enjoy the varying shapes and forms of trees silhouetted against the snow. We have all enjoyed seeing that solitary white oak, black walnut, or sugar maple standing alone in a field against the snowy white. Knowing “who” it is, adds another dimension to your understanding and appreciation.

Contact: Jim Finley
Email: fj4@psu.edu
Phone: 814-863-0401

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