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Shape, appearance and bark

Shape, size and bark are often the most memorable features of a tree.

Overall appearance, size and shape

Some trees have a distinctive overall appearance and shape that can be used to identify them, especially from a distance. Compare a silver birch with its narrow shape and light and airy crown to the broadly spreading crown of an oak.

Photograph of cedar of Lebanon tree
Cedar of Lebanon with spreading, horizontal branches.

Overall shape is also useful when identifying conifers. The layers of horizontally spreading branches of a mature cedar of Lebanon contrast with the sparsely branched Scot’s pine or densely bushy yew.

Where a tree is growing will affect its appearance and shape. Trees in woodland often have narrower crowns compared to those growing in parks with lots of space around them.

Top tip: look for signs of management which can affect the shape. Coppicing or pollarding of some species can create a tree with many stems, rather than a tall, single trunk such as hazel, beech and willows.


Silvery-white bark of silver birch.

Bark is the corky, waterproof layer that protects a tree's living tissue against disease and external attack. It's is an obvious feature, and at first glance many trees have similar-looking, brown bark. But take a closer look at the appearance, texture, markings and colour.

  • Does the bark have a pattern of ridges or depressions, peeling flakes or is it fissured, smooth or shiny?
  • Is the bark grey, white, red or green?

Bark develops over time as a tree ages. Younger trees often have a different coloured or textured bark to mature trees.

Trees which can be identified from their distinctive bark include wild cherry with reddish-grey bark and horizontal light-brown bands or lenticels. Birch trees have white bark and elder's bark is beige-grey with rugged, corky ridges and furrows.

Top tip: look at the bark all the way up the tree as it can vary between the base and the crown.