Over time, Platt and I would watch the buds swell until they seemed ready to burst open, like racehorses at a starting gate. Buds, however, don’t just bloom in response to a vagrant, unseasonably warm day or early season rain. They break dormancy only after exposure to cold temperatures for a cumulative, but not necessarily continuous, period of time, followed by adequate day length and an accumulation of warm weather. The specific criteria, which help keep buds from opening until after the danger of killing cold and frost has passed, are different for each species and vary according to genetic lineage and each bud’s location on the tree. Timing also depends on the bud type. Flower buds on red maples bloom before the leaves — which could impede the flow of wind-born pollen between flowers — and bring a wash of red to the spring canopy. Oak flowers appear with the leaves, while the flowers of basswood do not show until after the leaves mature, when more pollinators are available.
Platt’s close-up images show the winter buds and the differently shaped leaf scars on a white ash twig and a green ash twig.
As spring matures, tree buds open like slow motion jack-in-the-boxes. Stems elongate. Miniature leaves or flowers unfold. In his American Forests article, Platt revels in watching “spring’s surge of life roll across the landscape,” and his accompanying photographs grandly demonstrate the progression of individual buds. For many tree species, including American beech and white ash, an entire year’s new leaves and new stems often originate from this single flourish, a process called determinate growth. Buds for the next year, at first smaller than the head of a pin, soon follow. Other species, such as paper birch, have indeterminate growth patterns, where new stems and leaves continue to grow until later in the growing season, when the following year’s buds form.
With either pattern, buds for the next growing season appear before the leaves fall in autumn. In spring the number and vigor of flowers and leaves that grow, and the length of the shoots produced, are influenced by current circumstances, such as temperature and moisture levels, as well as by conditions from the previous year when the buds first developed. The terminal bud on the tip of an oak twig might contain a few or a dozen leaves; the stem could elongate less than an inch, 6 inches or more than a foot. As Platt came to realize, no single view of a tree is a simple snapshot in time.
Buds, flowers, leaves and the other components of trees develop and grow along a continuum that blurs seasonal and annual boundaries.
AS A CHILD, Platt knew the trees of his home landscape in Columbus, Ohio — the rough-barked trunk that frayed his sweater as he climbed; the heart-shaped leaves of the “home run tree” that stood behind center field; the hollowed trunk he could hide within. To him, these trees were functional objects, like the furniture in his home. Only as an adult could he connect the textures and colors of their bark, the structure of their branches and other details with their names: American elm, linden (basswood), black willow.
Mature catkins (flowers) of a willow (Salix sp.) with yellow pollen on the anthers.
Reflecting back, Platt contrasted his childhood intimacy with trees with their beauty and drama, which seemed to awaken in him on that winter day in 1929. He wondered how he could have missed noticing buds for all those years, and why people, in general, seemed so indifferent to winter trees. “[T]hey receive no more attention than black dead sticks,” Platt wrote.
Instead of blunt, cone-shaped buds covered by a single scale on sycamore trees, Platt saw “brown, conical hats, stocky, with a suggestion of a fold at the top, like the turned-over peak of a nightcap.” The tapered, twisting buds of service-berries appeared fluid, like a candle flame. He attributed the partial appearance of the yellowish, inner scales of black birch buds to their inability to contain themselves — their tendency to “push out and loosen up a bit, even in winter.”
Like those black birch buds, Platt seemed to have his own restless energy. In trees he found and conveyed to others not just the satisfying knowledge of their form and function, but a sense of joyous entertainment. He asks readers to listen with their imaginations to “the wrenching of bark as it forms its patterns; the whir of a studded pollen grain through the air; the report of a bursting seed . . . the muffled sounds in roots expanding with the power of dynamite.”
While Platt’s descriptions of trees sometimes lean toward poetic, he cautioned about getting too carried away with enthusiasm. On the jacket of “American Trees: A Book of Discovery,” Platt declares that his book resists sentimentality and offers practical descriptions of trees — their suitability as firewood, for construction and other uses. Yet on the first page, Platt imagines that every tree has a sign that declares, “Something Marvelous Is Going On Here!” Without official degrees or academic standing, I wonder if Platt was concerned that his awe and enthusiasm would keep him from being taken seriously as a scientist. Those fears, if they existed, proved unfounded; in 1960, Platt’s peers elected him as a Fellow of The American Association for the Advancement of Science.
RUTHERFORD PLATT understood that our human connection to trees transcends their utility or the ecosystem services they provide, such as releasing oxygen, storing CO2 and harboring a host of other organisms. He saw trees as an antidote to troubled times. During World War II, his book “This Green World,” along with a series of excerpts of the text and photographs published in LIFE magazine, provided a much-needed diversion from the war coverage that dominated news sources at the time.
The spring flowers and leaves of this apple tree bloomed from sererate buds; some other species have flowers and leaves within the same buds.
In “American Trees,” published after the war, Platt counseled that trees provide “reassurance about life itself in a violent world.” In a 1968 revision of the book, reacting to the post-war boom, he refers to the “confused, overcrowded world,” where trees have been cleared seemingly everywhere for housing, shopping centers and “concrete carpets” for “his Supreme Majesty the Car.” Platt evoked the personal discovery of trees as a way to foster public opinion against expansive deforestation, to stretch the mind and spirit and counterbalance the growing focus on speed and progress.
Platt had a gift for making connections. He found buds in the midst of winter, in the heart of New York City. He was a businessman turned naturalist — respected by his scientific peers, yet mostly self-taught; a man in love with the country that dwelled in the city; an adult that renewed and expanded his childhood perception of trees. He brought us the facts about trees in a lyrical voice that still resonates within us.
Perhaps most significant is the timelessness of Platt’s words and images. He helps us recognize what is already present, often right before our eyes — what he referred to as “the showmanship of nature.” He invites us on a path of discovery and connection that flows like the natural rhythms of trees, throughout the seasons and the years.