Wintertime Woody Plant I.D. with Rhode Island Natural History Survey


URI Botany Professor Keith Killingbeck

URI Botany Professor Keith Killingbeck

       Who goes tramping through the woods in winter? It’s a time for relaxing by a fire, curling up with a hot beverage, reading. Outdoor events in the toughest month of the year? Surely no one would be foolish enough to even think of attending. Unless, of course, you are part of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS). Then fifty of you show up.

         The program, held at the US Fish and Wildlife’s Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown, was the kickoff for RINHS’s yearlong celebration called “20 Memorable Events for 20 Memorable Years”.  The independent non-profit organization is a consortium of academics, conservationists, professionals and amateurs dedicated to expanding their knowledge of the natural world. As Executive Director David W. Gregg recently wrote, the events will “celebrate natural history, the benefits it provides, and the interest that the natural world holds for so many.”

Prof. Hope Leeson, coordinator of RINHS's Rhody Native Initiative, and Prof. Keith  Killingbeck.

Prof. Hope Leeson, coordinator of RINHS’s Rhody Native Initiative, and Prof. Keith Killingbeck.

RINHS board members Prof. Keith Killingbeck from URI, along with Tim Mooney, Preserves Manager for The Nature Conservancy, guided the packed session, designed to acquaint the public with the intricacies of identifying woody plants in the winter time. That means no beautiful leaves or flowers to guide.  An artist’s palette dominated by one color: gray. In order to tell a birch from an oak, a new vocabulary was in order, including terminal buds, scars, lenticels, and more.  There were times when the learning process felt a bit like a stone skipped on the water: occasional contact with familiarity followed by lots of travel across terms unknown.

Killingbeck directs the crowd toward characteristics of a black birch.

Killingbeck directs the crowd toward characteristics of a black birch.

Killingbeck selected a twig from a plant along the path. Various members of the group began to analyze the elements they recognized in the twig structure: the very tip of the branch had a bud on it, from which a summer leaf would emerge. Called a terminal bud (for its position as the “last” bud on the branch), a look through a lens uncovered that the bud was whitish in color, and had tiny hairs on it. After a few suggestions from the group, Killingbeck identified it as a scarlet oak, so called for the leaves which turn a deep crimson in the fall – leaves which, of course, were not present at this time of year. The crowd moved on.

Fruit of staghorn

Rhus typhina (Staghorn sumac)

“Hey, Keith, is that sumac you’re handling with your bare hands?” The question, not entirely serious, came from The Nature Conservancy’s Tim Mooney. Not entirely serious because both Mooney and Killingbeck know better than to deliberately come into contact with a poisonous form of rhus, which would result in a nasty, itchy rash. No, Killingbeck was handling the staghorn sumac (rhus hirta), so named for the upper stalks of fuzzy branches that resemble the velvet horns of a male (stag) deer. He stood next to the eight-foot plant and clipped a dried cluster of red berries, explaining that Native Americans would dry the berries and use them to create a kind of lemonade. Normally, said Mooney, the red fruits of the sumac are favored by birds in the wintertime, and the ones found on this plant would likely be gone by this time of year. “Although they like (the red fruits), the fact that they haven’t been eaten is indicative of the amount of time they spend at the feeders,” he said, referring to the network of feeders just a hundred yards away.


Like the sumac, the sassafras, another woody plant along the way, could be used to make tea. Despite the dearth of summer scents, a scratch of the sassafras bark revealed that it still held the spicy smell that makes its tea distinctive. So too did the bayberry, another plant spotted, hold onto its beautiful scent of summer, despite the snow that blanketed the ground. Maleberry, a cousin of the blueberry, still held onto seed clusters that, while they looked a bit like their indigo relatives, would always remain too hard to be baked into any pie.  The white maleberry flowers eventually harden into five-part seed capsules. 

Maleberry's five-part seed compartments.

Maleberry’s five-part seed compartments.

Ninety minutes later, the group kicked the snow from their boots and headed into the Visitor’s Center for respite, refreshments, and research.  Killingbeck and Mooney distributed copies of Winter Keys to Woody Plants of Maine (Campbell, Hyland, and Campbell) along with a “mystery cutting” from a plant on the grounds of Kettle Pond.

Kevin and Laura Craver-Rogers take a break from the task of keying out the samples.

Kevin and Laura Craver-Rogers take a break from the task of keying out the samples.

The process of “keying out”, making the identification of the specific plant, transpires through the use of a series of couplets.  Couplets, in this case, are pairs of questions. The process begins with two general questions about the plant. As the person chooses the answer that fits the specimen in hand, that answer then leads to the next couplet, and the process continually narrows the possible choices. It’s a bit like the children’s book series Choose your own Adventure: if you want your character to choose door one, turn to page 42; if you want door two, turn to page 64. 

After much discussion over the key and examination with hand lenses, someone reveals a “cheat”: in this case, a scratch of the bark produces a distinct wintergreen scent that clinches the identification: a black birch, batula lenta. Satisfied with the identification, the crowd ends the session the way all wintery outdoor adventures should: hot soups, hot drinks, sweets, and good conversation among fifty people who look upon winter as a fine time to get outdoors.

(For more information about “20 Memorable Events for 20 Memorable Years”, visit the RINHS website at )


Note: RINHS Board Member Emilie Holland put together a document with photos of the species found, along with notes.  You can find the document here: 


  • Very imformative! I love your blogs, Hugh keep them coming!

    • Thanks, Richard! I have a new one on the way this weekend. Stay tuned!

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