Fruits and seeds

Photograph of alder cones

The female catkins of alder develop into small, woody cone-like fruits in winter (Photo: M Barton/WTML)

At the right time of year fruits and seeds are a great character to help with identification. They vary in shape, appearance and size from hard nuts to soft berries.

Look at the colour and feel the texture of the outer surface of the fruit. Is it smooth, hairy, prickly, rough or papery, soft, hard or dry?

Consider opening fruits up to reveal the seeds inside, which can also be a useful identifying feature. Take note of whether fruits or seeds appear singly, such as crab apples, or in groups like the umbrella-like clusters of elderberries.

Identifying trees using fruit

Fruits of broadleaved trees

Photograph of spindle berries
Pink capsules of spindle with orange seeds.

The fruit types of broadleaf trees vary greatly and include: 

  • Samaras - papery winged fruits. The 'wings' can be in pairs (field maple and sycamore) or single (hornbeam).
  • Nuts - usually dry and woody. Some are unmistakeable such as the shiny brown sweet chestnuts inside prickly casings .
  • Catkins - long and dangly and becoming fluffy masses of seeds in summer (willows and birches).
  • Berries - soft and juicy fruits often containing several seeds (elder and guelder rose).
  • Stone fruits - a fleshy exterior and a single stone inside (plums, cherries and sloes).
  • Apples or pears - larger fleshy fruits with many seeds inside (crab apple, Plymouth pear).
  • Capsules - seeds contained within capsules of varying shapes and colours like the bright pink capsules of spindle which split open to reveal bright orange seeds.
  • Cones - Alder has fruits that look like dry, woody cones that remain on the tree all year.

Fruits of coniferous trees

Photograph of yew fruit
Yew 'berries' are types of cones.

Conifers have a fruit that is known as a cone which contains the seeds.

  • Cones are formed of scales which overlap one another for example in pines or larches or are fused together such as those of the cypresses.
  • The can vary in appearance and can also be highly modified. The red ‘berry’ of a yew and the blue round ‘berry’ of juniper are actually cones.
  • Look at the different shapes and sizes from elongated and cylindrical to oval and round.
  • Noting whether they grow upwards or hang downwards on a tree can also help with identification.

Top tip: out of season you can look around the base of the tree to find old fruits or seeds but bear in mind they may have come from a neighbouring tree.

Other ways to identify trees

smooth leaved elm leaves
Spindle blossom

A-Z guide to British trees

Explore our guide to the trees of Britain and learn how to identify each species with images and descriptions.

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alder buckthorn leaf

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