By Mary Beth Pottratz
Bright sunbeams play hide-and-seek with me as I stroll through the woods. Blinding bright one second, and hiding the next, they peek between tree trunks in prisms and stars.
Sparkles in the blue-white snow light up and then dim in unending succession. Stripes of light and shadow form on the forest floor, moving with my every step and changing with each tree I pass.
Winter is the perfect time to appreciate tree shapes. Craggy oaks are easiest to identify with their bumping, twisting limbs. The lucky ones left uncrowded by other trees spread their branches far and low, seeming to reach out as if trying to touch passers-by.
A basswood tree stands in a smooth, symmetrical, rounded cone, its gracefully upturned branch tips reaching towards the sky. Today the outside of its silhouette is tinged with muted red, from the new growth twigs and buds sprouting along its branch tips.
Slender ironwoods wander up tall before branching out lightly, sporting catkins now. Ironwood bark is evenly ridged in straight, light stripes like grey corduroy.
Tamaracks are the most unusual. After all, we don’t usually see our pine trees naked! Its branches grow in horizontal whorls around the trunk, pointing skyward. The rough twigs are replete with knobs where tufts of needles grew before they were shed. Its cones form inch-wide balls and are scattered thickly around the branches.
The lower trunks in clumps of birches grow leaning away from each other, allowing their graceful branches to form at a polite distance from its neighbor. The peeling bark helps reveal the type – finely shredded, inch-long shaggy fringe over golden-hued trunks of yellow birch; deep, thick pink and chocolate curls of river birch; and the sweet birch with its catkins and pine cones on the same branches, coated in thick, rough plates of gray armor.
But my favorite, the stately white pine, looks the same all year round. Its long, soft needles form in tufts of five along the branches. The bark is smooth pale grey on young white pines, and thickly furrowed and darker on older trees. Cones form singly or in clumps on the outer edges of branches. Underneath, you can lie in shade on a soft bed of fallen needles. Do this on a hot summer’s day and look up to see tiny droplets of sap sparkle in the sunlight as they drip down around you. And inhale. The pungent, clean scent of pine is heavenly.
But even the bright sunlight can’t coax out the sap on this crispy cold day. I make a mental note of the pine’s location, saving it for a warmer day.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer.