How to identify trees in winter

Alder cones
Look for clues like these alder cones (Photo: WTML/Pete Holmes)

Many trees lose their leaves in winter so it takes a bit of detective work to figure out what species they are. Here’s our guide to becoming a winter tree expert.

Look at the leaf buds

They’ll often give you the biggest clue. What colour are they? How big? How are they arranged on the twig – in pairs opposite each other, or spaced out along the twig? Are they smooth, sticky or hairy?

Our twig ID sheet shows you what the buds of different trees look like. Remember to look at the colour and shape of the twigs too. Watch out for those sharp prickles on hawthorn and blackthorn though!

Inspect the bark

Identifying trees by their bark is a bit trickier as lots of them are quite similar, but it can often give you some extra evidence. Here are a few of the more obvious ones to get you started:


Young trees have smooth, silvery-grey bark, but it often has cracks and large peeling scales as they get older.


These trees have grey-brown bark, with ridges that look like they’re woven together.

Silver birch

Look for silvery-white, peeling and papery bark. Older trees often have black diamond shapes and other knobbly bits at the bottom.


The bark is smooth and grey-green when the trees are young, but there are lots of deep, criss-cross cracks and ridges on older trees.

Wild cherry

This tree’s bark is purplish-grey with light brown bands.


Look out for greyish-brown and shiny bark, which peels off in strips.

Stand back and look at the shape

In woods it can often be hard to tell the difference as most trees try to grow tall and thin to get more sunlight. But, if a tree is out in the open, the shape may give you a clue.

Field maples are often round, ash trees are tall and slim, alders are cone-shaped, and the silver birch has droopy branches.

Keep an eye out for fruit and seeds

If you come across a tree with bright pink fruit and orange seeds, that’s a spindle tree – quite hard to miss, really!

Spindle berries
Pink and orange spindle seeds (Photo: WTML/Steven Kind)

The alder has small brown cones in winter, and the ash has clumps of winged seeds – most of them will have fallen off by now but you might find them around the base of the tree. And if you keep your eyes peeled, you might spot catkins on silver birch and hazel.

Hazel catkins
Hazel catkins (Photo: WTML/Tim Dent)

Why not see how many winter trees you can identify on your next woodland wander? Don’t forget to post some pictures and tell us what you found on our Facebook page!

Which trees have you identified this winter?

comments powered by Disqus