Deciduous trees dominate both wild and cultivated landscapes in the temperate climate zones of the middle latitudes. These species include not only attractive ornamentals such as maples and willows, but also fruit and nut-bearing trees like apples and walnuts.
While they can survive winter in these zones, they have evolved mechanisms to help them survive in cold weather.
Deciduous trees do not grow in winter. Instead, they go into dormancy or hibernation, and concentrate their energies on surviving the cold temperatures and limited supply of water. Because they lose their leaves, they shut down the process of photosynthesis that would otherwise foster growth.
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What are Deciduous Trees?
Briefly, deciduous trees are trees that lose their leaves at the end of the growing season.
They are also known as broadleaf or hardwood trees.
Most deciduous trees have broad, flat leaves, although the larch does have needle-shaped leaves similar to evergreens.
These broad leaves provide a lot of surface area for sunlight to hit, so that photosynthesis can produce plenty of carbohydrates to support growth, and in many cases fruits and nuts.
Deciduous trees can also be identified by the rounded shape of their crowns. While species such as poplars may be fairly narrow, they still lack the pointed tops of conifers such as spruce or pines.
What are Some Examples of Deciduous Trees?
How Much Does a Deciduous Tree Grow in a Year?
The amount of annual growth varies from one deciduous tree to the next. It’s also dependent on the age of the tree.
For instance, a young oak tree can grow as much as 2-3 feet (0.6-1 meters) per year, but that rate will drop to 1 foot (0.3 meters) after about 15 years.
On the other hand, a maple might only manage to add 1-2 feet (0.3-0.6 meters) per year, even in its early growth spurt.
Mountain ash trees are extremely fast growers in their early years, adding as much as 7-10 feet (2-3 meters) annually, but by the time a tree is 90 years old, that rate drops to 1.5 feet (0.5 meters).
Eventually, mature trees will stop growing in height, although their trunks will continue to widen as a new ring of growth is added every year. That mountain ash, for example, will stop growing taller at 150 years, but can easily live for another 100 more.
Do Deciduous Trees Lose Leaves in the Winter?
Most but not all deciduous trees drop their leaves in late autumn or early winter.
The fall show of color when their leaves turn to shades of gold, orange and red is one of the reasons that deciduous trees are such popular landscape plants.
This color change is triggered by the tree cutting off nutrients to the leaves as they prepare for winter dormancy.
Once the trees go dormant, the leaves are no longer needed for photosynthesis.
What Deciduous Trees Keeps their Leaves in Winter?
Some deciduous trees do not shed their leaves once they have turned color in autumn.
Instead, the leaves remain on the branches until the spring. They are no longer alive, but they do not detach and fall until new leaves are about to emerge at the beginning of the growing season.
Oaks, beeches, and hornbeams are among the tree species that keep their leaves in winter, although as the trees mature their leaves tend to drop.
However, young trees may benefit from retaining their leaves in a couple of ways.
The rustling of the leaves on the branches may deter animals such as deer from eating them in winter.
As well, the freshly dropped leaves may give an extra shot of nutrients to the root systems of young trees in spring.
How Do Deciduous Trees Survive Winter?
Deciduous trees survive the cold winter months by going into dormancy.
In fall, a layer of cells grows between the leaf stems and tree branch, cutting off the supply of nutrients and water to the leaves. Once the leaves drop, the holes that are left behind seal up.
Because the leaves die, all those surfaces that would otherwise transpire water are gone, so the tree needs very little water to stay alive through the months when the ground is frozen.
You can’t see it, but within the tree, its cells actually shrink and harden, helping them to withstand extremely cold temperatures.
Deciduous trees are certainly an essential part of any landscape. Not only do they provide welcome shade in summer with their canopies of leaves, but in the cold months their bare branches add their own beauty to the winter landscape.
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