Wrinkles of time

Growth rings on maple twig

I’ve been wanting for a little while now to repeat a post I did early in the life of this blog. In fact, it was the third post I wrote here (not including the “Hello world!” introductory post), two years ago less a week, on January 13, 2008. It concerned a subject that my mom had recently (at the time) discovered in a library book she was reading, though I seem to have neglected the name of the book.

We all know that you can count the rings of a tree’s trunk, once it’s been felled, to figure out the age it was when it died. You can also do the same thing for large branches by taking a cross-section. But did you know you can also observe the passage of years on the twigs at the end of the tree’s branches?

As a twig grows, its extension of length follows the same stop-and-start pattern as the rings in the tree’s trunk (which represent the laying down of new wood each year), since obviously they don’t continue growing in the winter months. At the end of the fall, before the twigs stop growing for the year, trees such as this maple develop flower buds at their tips that will turn into next year’s flowers come spring.

Growth rings on maple twig

Where they set their buds (regardless of whether or not the twig develops side branches) the bark of the twig “wrinkles”. You can’t see it at the point of the flower buds, but you can easily detect it for previous years. Look closely at the two photos above. See how there’s spots along the twig, about the same length as the twig is wide, where there appear to be a whole bunch of ridged rings clustered together? You can also see it at the base of the side branches on the top photo. That’s where the buds formed that year. Once the flower buds have finished and the tree has released its seeds, the twig continues growing (at least, I believe this is how it works; I poked about online to confirm, but couldn’t find anything that mentioned it. It would be hard for the twig to grow while bearing flowers at its tip, though).

Growth rings on maple branch

The rings persist many years. This is from much farther back on the branch; you can compare the thickness of it to the twig that’s coming off the side. The rings are still present, but you can see the ridges of the bark just starting to cross through them.

Maple twig growth

Because they’re a long-lasting physical feature, you can count backwards to examine the annual growth of each twig and branch. Here’s a sample, above. On this small twig I found four sets of rings, set at various intervals along its length. Each ring represents the start of a new year’s growth, with the portion of twig between each ring having grown in that particular year. So if we consider the small flower buds at the end of the tip as 2010’s new growth, then the section of twig just below the flower bud was what the tree produced during 2009, back as far as the first set of rings. The bit of twig between the first and second set of rings was the growth from 2008, and so on.

I only show as far back as the rings formed from the flowers of 2006, but I could trace back a few more years along the branch behind it (it just wouldn’t’ve shown up well in the photo). It’s interesting to note that the tree doesn’t grow the same amount of twig every year. The length it grows depends a lot on weather conditions such as temperature, and the amount of sunlight and rainfall. In optimal conditions, the tree will produce more twig growth, and in poorer years the growth will be shorter. It can also vary from twig to twig. It’s less pronounced on this twig than it was on the sample twig I used two years ago. (Also note how green the background was two years ago!)

Incidentally, data from the University of Waterloo about an hour and a half west of Toronto indicates that rainfall was about average in 2009, above average in 2008 and 2006, and below average in 2007. Doesn’t really help explain the growth pattern, does it?

Growth rings on maple twig

Have a look at your own trees next time you’re walking by. Try comparing them to trees in other areas or other habitat types. See any patterns? Yes? What do they suggest? No? Well, it’s still neat to observe the annual growth spurts, anyway. :)


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

17 thoughts on “Wrinkles of time”

    1. Thanks, KaHolly! I like to pretend I know lots, but quite often I learn the stuff only a short while before you do! One of the things I love about blogging is how much I discover.

    1. It’s pretty neat to be able to examine a branch and sort of feel like you’re looking back into its past the same way counting tree trunk rings feels like you’re seeing the history of the tree.

    1. I found it pretty neat when I first learned about it. I have this idea that this year I’d like to tie a piece of thread or something to a few twigs where their flower buds were and then check on them throughout the season to watch them grow.

  1. Wicked! I remember learning about this back in my school days, why I forgot something this awesome eludes me….so thanks for bringing it back to my attention!

    1. I’m amazed at some of the cool stuff I learned in school but have since forgotten. I think part of the problem, Emilie, is that it was learned in school! The stuff I’ve learned on my own since then, because I was interested enough to search out the answer, has stuck with me a lot better.

  2. Not a library book, one I own. It’s A Naturalist’s Guide to Forest Plants: An Ecology for Eastern North America, by Donald D. Cox. There’s other good stuff. You can borrow it, if you like.

  3. This is great information & really useful to me. You have a fantastic blogroll & if this post is anything to go by, there is a lot I can learn from your blog. I will visit often. I found you via FoTT’s.

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