The first leaf is one of the best moments – none of the blossom, fruits, nuts or berries can happen without those leaves gently unfurling. Buds and catkins are one of the most fascinating features of trees once you seek them out – and if you find your favourite tree you can follow its buds, leaves, catkins and then leaf drop throughout the year.
There are a range of things to look for on your twigs – thorniness; whether they form “ groups” or are single; whether they are alternate, opposite or at the end of the branch; how hairy they are. Winter is also a great time to appreciate the shape of a tree, its nooks and crannies and whether there are other features, such as ivy or the ever-rare mistletoe, which provide homes and nectar for a wide range of species.
There is a strange mirroring of plant and animal. One of the first buds to burst is hawthorn.
Watching such an intricate leaf unfurl is like seeing a dragonfly emerge as it grows, and bends, folded, becoming a fresh and intricate green leaf. Over time it will become glossy, dark and bitter, but there is a period where hawthorn leaves are edible – just try to avoid stealing leaves from your neighbour’s hedge. Grey willow and goat willow are favourites, with their soft white and grey puffs giving the impression of a wholesome and gentle tree. Long-tailed tits and willow buds seem to mirror one another particularly well, somehow – two balls of fluff. Hairy rowan buds, however, recall deer hooves, being long and hairy. Their almond scent is due to deadly cyanide compounds which many plants produce and belies their frothy blossoms in summer and lipstick red fruits in autumn.
Ash has sadly been decimated by ash dieback and they always seem a gloomy and wistful tree in winter, with greyish bark and chunky black buds giving a funereal air. It is, therefore, even more of a joy when they produce the freshest lime green leaves and the best dappled shade, with a tree in full leaf becoming truly majestic. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for the first few catkins in February and March - hazel catkins glowing sulphurous yellow and, if you’re lucky enough to have a delicate aspen near you, the female catkins look similar, but like dangling caterpillars with vivid red spots.
Oak is always one of the last to leaf – the fat brown clusters will remain on the tree, not bursting until May. They make up for it by being one of the last trees to hold their leaves, usually not dropping them in any quantity until October gales. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why the oak can safely be called our most loved tree, with a tree in full leaf not in display until the weather is summery, or still shading us from the warmth in a late Indian summer. There must be a word for a tree in full leaf – arbourness? Greenulation? Leafsplosion?
The springtime sounds of trees bear repeating in this column. Find a young, smooth-barked tree, place your ear to it and block your other ear. You will hear sucking sounds and knocking as the trees starts to wake, and phloem flows through the tree to pick up those nutrients the leaves have made as if by magic.