Tree as Flower

by Carl Strang

Spring is packed with delights and surprises. One small one I enjoy each year is bud break on shagbark hickory trees.

Shagbark bud opens b

I haven’t yet found the way to do its beauty proper justice with my photography. This photo from the Mayslake savanna last week is the closest I have come over the years.

Of course, given the inquiry theme of this blog, such an observation always is accompanied by a question. Why do the inner bud scales expand so hugely and with such bright colors? They make each twig end look like a huge flower. One hypothesis that comes to mind (dangerous, because if you have only one you have a tendency to stick with it) is that the bright color may attract the many small insect-feeding birds that come through at this time of year. “Birds, come here, glean off the insects that want to eat my new leaves that don’t quite yet have their defensive chemistry built up!”

Countering that hypothesis is the fact that birds seem to cover all the trees just fine, and others don’t have such a gaudy display. For instance, this Baltimore oriole is happily probing a less showy oak not far from the hickory I photographed.

Baltimore oriole 4a

On the other hand, shagbark hickory has fewer twig ends per branch, so perhaps this balances its place in the trees’ competition (if there is such: another hypothesis) for gleaning birds.

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