Winter Tree Identification

To the majority of people trees are hard enough to identify in the summer, let alone in the winter. Take away the leaves and you would be forgiven for saying they all look the same. However the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) decided that it was time to change this view by hosting a winter tree identification workshop open to Reading University students.

On a cold January morning (there was actually a light dusting of snow) we were shown the key things to look for when trying to distinguish one bare tree from another. After heading out into the field to look at various species in situ, we were brought back into the warm and given an assemblage of twigs and tasked with identifying them. Something we managed with varying success.

The following weekend, on an equally cold day, I decided to take a walk around a frozen Whiteknights lake and see if I could remember what I had learned. At this stage I aught to make two brief points. Firstly I won’t be going down to species level because, whilst not impossible, this is extremely difficult, made worse by hybridisation. Secondly a number of the photos below are of twigs, removed from trees. These were kindly donated by BBOWT and not collected by myself around the lake, mainly because of the strange looks I’d get hacking away at trees.

Anyway, on with the identification, let’s have a look at five common trees found dotted around the lake, starting with an easy one.


Oak (Quercus robur and Q. x rosacea)- Arguably the nation’s favorite tree, oaks can be found all the way around the lake but the greatest can be found on the grass between Wessex Hall and the waters edge. The best, and simplest way to identify an oak is to look at the buds. Essentially if it has groups of buds at the end (terminal buds) it’s an oak of some kind.


Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)– Again the easiest way to identify an ash (in fact the easiest way to identify most trees in winter) is to look at the buds. However it’s not quite as simple as the oak. With ash the buds are hard and black and found in pairs (one either side) along the branch. At the site of a bud the twig is flattened slightly, resulting in a deviation from the otherwise circular branch shape.


Typical paired black ash buds


Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) – A very distinctive and easily identifiable tree for two reasons. Firstly horse chestnuts have large paired buds along the branch, ending in a single terminal bud. These are sticky to the touch (I wouldn’t recommend this, you’ll have to take my word for it) and have many bud scales (small sections that make up each individual bud). From this alone it may not be a horse chestnut though. To make sure we need to take a look at the leaf scars under the buds. These are large and supposedly horseshoe shaped, including studs and are what give the tree its name.


Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa) – For once we don’t immediately turn to the buds for identification. Common alders have small cone like fruit in winter, which is usually a good indication. However just to make sure let’s take a look at the buds. Unlike the ash and horse chestnut above alder buds do not form in pairs, they spiral around the branch, until they reach a single terminal bud at the end. The buds are a strange shape, with flattened sides but most distinctively they are a purple colour, which is handy in identification.


Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)– A quick look at both the buds and leaf scar should tell us all we need to know to identify this one. The buds are green and form in pairs opposite each other on the branch, ending in a single terminal bud. Each bud is tightly formed and made up of lots of bud scales. The leaf scars are wider then the bud and bowl shaped.


And there we have it, five easy to identify trees in the heart of winter. The above examples are fairly easy and distinctive and are a great place to start identifying, especially due to the numbers of each on campus.





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