Leaf buds and twigs

Photograph of ash buds

The black terminal leaf buds of ash in winter are very distinctive one of its key identifying features – they are black with one larger bud at the end of each shoot flanked by an opposite pair of smaller buds (Photo: P Holmes/WTML)

In winter you’ll find that there aren’t many features to help with identification of deciduous trees, but leaf buds and twigs can reveal some distinctive clues.

Leaf buds

Leaf bud arrangement and position

Buds are usually present on twigs through winter. When they are at the end of the twig they are called terminal buds and are often the largest buds. Those growing along the twig are lateral buds and these can have one of three main arrangements.

• Alternate – in pairs arranged in turn on opposite sides of the stem (rowan, hawthorn, hazel, elms and limes).
• Opposite – in pairs placed directly either side of the stem (ash, dogwood, spindle, sycamore and Norway maple).
• Spiral – buds whorl alternately around the stem (oaks, aspen and blackthorn).

How the buds are held on the twig is a subtle but helpful clue. Willow buds are tightly pressed against the twig (adpressed) whereas those of oak and beech stick out at an angle from the twig.

Photograph of beech leaf buds
Beech has sharply pointed buds

Leaf bud shape and appearance

Some trees have distinctively shaped buds. Many others simply have oval shaped buds and you may need another character to successfully identify the tree.

Trees with characteristic buds include beech with its sharply pointed straight-sided buds and horse chestnut with red sticky buds and those of elder which are very open and ragged looking. Oaks, elms and birches all have small scales which protect the bud inside. The buds of ash are one of its key identifying features – they are black with one larger bud at the end of each shoot flanked by an opposite pair of smaller buds.


Photograph of blackthorn twigs
Blackthorn twigs have spikes

Twig appearance and texture

Look at the texture of the twigs and whether they are smooth or hairy. Spines could indicate you’re looking at hawthorn or blackthorn and if it has corky ribs you may be looking at alder.

Twig colour can be subjective but there are a few trees where this is a key feature, particularly on new growth. There are a few species where colour can help identification including the red of dogwood, the greens and yellows of willows and dark purple-black of blackthorn. Alder buckthorn twigs have orange markings called lenticels.

Top tip: use the features of twigs and buds in combination to help you identify the tree. For more tips on identifying winter trees see our blog how to identify trees in winter.

Other ways to identify trees

smooth leaved elm leaves
Spindle blossom

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alder buckthorn leaf

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