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How to identify trees in winter

If you’re willing to look closely, winter trees aren’t bare at all. Their buds, twigs, bark and general shape give plenty of clues as to their identity.

Perhaps the easiest way to start is to see if there are any dead leaves or fruit still hanging onto the tree. If not, have a look at the ground under the tree to see if there are enough fallen leaves or fruit of one type to convince you that they came from the tree above.

Identifying using leaf buds

Buds come in many shapes, sizes, textures and colours. Some are sticky, some are scaly and some are hairy. They can be pressed close to the twig that they are growing on, or can stick out sideways. On a few trees the buds are neatly arranged in pairs, one bud on each side of the twig. On others, the buds are spaced out along the twig, on alternating sides, or spiralling.

I’ve found that these features are actually quite easy to remember and learn. Some buds that I’ve spotted so far this winter are the distinctive black velvety buds of ash, and the dark red, sticky buds of horse chestnut.

Distinctive twigs and bark

Ash twig in winter. (Photo: P. Holmes/WTML)

Twigs are very distinctive too. For example, lime twigs are red and alder buckthorn twigs have orange markings. Elder twigs are warty and white willow twigs are silky. Ash trees are easily identified in winter by smooth twigs that have distinctively black, velvety leaf buds arranged opposite each other. The buds at the ends of twigs (terminal) are larger and resemble the tip of a cross-head screwdriver. Beware of hawthorn and blackthorn twigs which bear long spines!

I remember taking bark rubbings as a child and trying to find the trees which created the best patterns on paper. White poplar bark would have been a good choice with its diamond shaped pores, but not whitebeam bark which is glossy and smooth. Sycamore bark flakes in rectangular chunks and silver birch bark is peeling and papery.

For extra help identifying twigs on your travels, see our Nature Detectives Nature Detectives twig ID sheet.

Recognising tree shapes

You can consider the overall shape of the tree as an extra clue. Field maples have very round profiles, whereas ash trees are slim and tall. Alder trees are conical and silver birch trees have drooping branches. Tree shape will differ depending on whether the individual tree is in a woodland or not. Competing with neighbouring trees for light makes woodland trees generally taller and thinner in profile than if grown in an open space such as parkland.

Spotting berries and catkins

Close up of bright pink fruits and orange seeds of the Spindle flower

On a woodland walk, earlier in the season, I spotted a winter tree covered in vivid pink fruit with bright orange seeds. This spindle tree was hard to miss. Other trees with distinguishing winter features include hazel, which has catkins and alder which has woody cone- like fruits. Ash has clumps of winged seeds on female trees that hang on into winter.

Why not have a go at identifying?

It’s easier to identify winter trees when you know what to look for. See our British trees pages for top tips on identifying trees in the winter and throughout the year.

Look out for the bright pink fruits and orange seeds of spindle, see if you can spot the black leaf buds of ash trees or keep your eyes peeled for the dark cones that hang on alder trees throughout the winter.

Clues are all around, so why not see if you can identify a tree or two on a winter walk this Christmas?

Help in identifying trees

We have plenty of resources to help you identify trees in the UK whatever the season, whether trees have leaves, flowers or fruits.

Find out more about British trees and how to identify them

Do you know your ash for you oak? Watch our video

See our Nature Detectives leaf ID sheet

Find winter twigs with our Nature Detectives twig ID sheet