Winter Tree Identification

Winter twig of Fraxinus excelsior

The identification of a tree in winter is not always simple to work out, but for Tree Heritage it’s a crucial part of our job!

You probably have an image in your head of Tree Surgeons – the guys who come along and either fell or prune trees. However, there’s another side to our work that you probably don’t know much about…we survey trees all the time.

 Development drawing

We survey trees for Planning Applications – suppose you want to extend a building or put a new car park onto your site. Tree Heritage survey the existing trees on site, produce drawings and reports which will be used in the Planning Application.

 School field with trees

We survey trees on school grounds to assess their safety. If your children are sitting under trees or playing around them during their lunch break, don’t you want to know that the school has their trees inspected regularly for safety?

Regardless of why we get asked to survey trees, the very first thing we need to do is identify their species correctly…and tree identification is much harder in winter because the only clues you have are the form (shape), the bark and the bare winter twig!

However, as with most things, experience counts for a lot – the more times you stare at a bare tree in winter, the more times you pick out those key identification features and the better you get at recognising them. Between us all, we’ve got quite a few years of experience and it’s now very rare that we come across something that we can’t identify – this is when branches are pruned off, photos are taken, the shelves are emptied of specialist tree books and we spend the afternoon challenging each other to work it out!

And that for me is the exciting thing about winter tree identification – the challenge. The photo at the top of this blog is an instantly recognisable Ash twig (Fraxinus excelsior) – I know this because a long time ago my lecturer taught me to appreciate the beauty of that matt black bud at the end of the twig. It’s always this colour on an Ash, a sort of sooty, velvety hat at the end of every twig! And the fact that when you see the whole branch, it’s curving up towards the sky…the whole tree has this graceful curve upwards at the end of every branch. This is the sort of detail which you can only see in the winter, before all those lovely leaves burst out and hide the branch structure.

Okay, so you’ve got an image in your mind of a sooty, black bud at the end of an upwardly curving twig, now compare that to the following images and see how quickly recognition of features can help you identify other trees:

Winter twig of Acer pseudoplatanus

See how this bud is bright green and has lots of over-lapping tiny leaves protecting it (these are called ‘bud scales’) This is a Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)

Winter twig of Aesculus hippocastanum

This is a great big fat bud, lots of bud scales, chestnut in colour and sticky to the touch – this is a Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

Winter twig of Fagus sylvatica

Sticking out an angle from the twig, dark brown and looking like a long, thin cigar – you’ve probably found a Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Winter twig of Quercus robur

Lots of fat little buds, all dark red brown and all clustered together at the end of a gnarly grey-brown twig are all indications of an English Oak (Quercus robur)

Of course, this isn’t an extensive list of trees, just some of those you’re likely to see. And we don’t identify trees purely from their buds, there’s lots of other factors to take into account. But if you fancy the idea of challenging yourself next time you’re walking the dog down the towpath, or taking the kids out for a quick winter hike, see if you can identify your local trees.

There’s a whole bookcase full of beautiful books on trees in the Tree Heritage office that none of us ever get enough time to sit down and study. Most of those books are for reference when we get back to the office and are far too big and bulky to slip in your pocket or rucksack when you’re out for a leisurely stroll.

However, I can thoroughly recommend you take a look at the identification guides and leaflets produced by the Field Studies Council. They produce a brilliant little book called “A guide to the identification of deciduous broad-leaved trees and shrubs in winter” and it works like one of those 1980’s Dungeons and Dragons books…if you choose this, then turn to page 9, kind of thing! It’s called an identification key and it guides you through the process by asking you questions such as: Are the buds opposite each other on the stem or do they appear alternately? The key then tells you to go to the next question depending on how you’ve just answered. One afternoon spent with this book and a bundle of winter twigs will make you a winter tree identification expert! Or at least give you the confidence to work out what you’re looking at when you’re out and about!

If you’ve got a smartphone with you and a decent signal, you can also give their identification apps a try: FSC identification apps

Be warned though, the Field Studies Council produce a huge amount of fold-out charts and guide books ranging from identifying wildflowers to woodlice and everything inbetween. Before you know it you’ll be hooked and trying to identify everything around you!

If you want to know more about the Consultancy side of Tree Heritage, have a look here: Consultancy pages or you can go direct to the Planning and Development page or find information about Safety Surveys.

I challenge you – start really looking closely at the clues nature leaves all around us…there’s something really satisfying about working out for yourself what something is (and then confidently telling your children!)