Ever get frustrated that you don’t know what tree it is you’re looking at? Don’t sweat it, I’m going to share with you my top 3 techniques for identifying any tree out in the countryside.
I call these techniques, my 3 Key Principles of Tree Identification. Have a look at the video below and I’ll explain what they are and how you can use them yourself.
When practising tree identification (and this goes for wildflowers too) I like to play a game of elimination, whittling down what the tree isn’t to help me work out what it is. Using these techniques helps me do that. So, let’s elaborate some more on these 3 Key Principles…
TECHNIQUE 1: TUNE IN
Think about your surroundings. Ask yourself, “where am I?” Are you in farmland, a town park, an old country estate or a retail centre car park?
This is important because the setting of where you’re looking at a tree can tell you a lot about which species you might expect or not expect to see.
For instance, if we’re out in farmland or a natural woodland then it’s most likely we shall see a range of our common native tree species; oak, hawthorn, ash, willow and so on. The trees that make up the majority of our countryside.
However, if we’re somewhere like a National Trust property, an old country estate, the likelihood of exotic tree species having been planted here becomes much greater. You could be seeing rhododendron, eucalyptus or even giant sequoia.
The same goes for looking at trees in somebody’s garden – they could have planted anything! There are hundreds of Acers (from the maple family) and a whole host of ornamental birches for a start, many of which are common place in gardens up and down the country.
This principle also applies to the wider environment. For instance you’re going to see a different variety of species down in Devon than you will up in the Highlands of Scotland. Certain tree species prefer certain soil types, or micro-climates, and some species will tolerate more extreme conditions, such as a mountain-side, more than others will.
So, a good habit to get into when you start practising tree identification, is when you arrive at a location to start tree hunting, take a moment to stop and ask yourself:
“Where am I?”
“What is the history of this environment?”
“Which species do I expect to see here?”
The more you practise tree identification, the more experience you will build up and the better you’ll be able to predict the range of species you could see when visiting a new place.
TECHNIQUE 2: BEGIN WITH THE BRANCH
Study a young, healthy branch first.
With most tree species, you can find everything you need to know to identify it in any season simply by looking at a healthy, young branch from the tree.
Depending on the season, a young healthy twig is going to include one or more of the following distinctive features:
Buds, leaves, flowers, fruit, nuts and of course the young bark itself.
Think of a young healthy branch as the tree in microcosm. Often, everything you need to know is right here.
One word of warning, make sure that the branch you’re looking at is actually attached to the trunk of the tree you’re investigating. When you’re in a woodland or looking at a hedgerow branches tend to cross over from other trees in their race to reach sunlight and it can be easy to grab hold of a branch from the neighbouring tree.
This may sound obvious but I’ve seen it plenty of times on courses and even done it myself and it can cause a lot of confusion.
So, once you’ve selected your branch to study. Just take a moment to follow it back with your eye and check it’s attached to the right tree.
TECHNIQUE 3: IS IT ALTERNATE OR OPPOSITE?
Study the bud or leaf arrangement.
Depending on the time of year, the twig is either going to include buds or leaves. These features are going to be laid out in one of two forms:
1. Alternately along the branch.
2. Growing in opposite pairs.
This is absolutely key to nailing the species of tree as once you’ve answered that question it allows you to eliminate a whole bunch of species from your enquiry.
So I like to ask the tree this question when I first approach it. “Are your buds arranged alternately or in opposite pairs?”
The majority of native tree species in Britain have their buds or leaves arranged alternately along the branch.
One last thing to remember; it’s important to select a young healthy twig to answer this question because as a branch matures it will often self-select the healthiest of the twigs to grow on and will drop it’s near partner. So, you can be looking at an older branch and thinking that they definitely don’t grow in opposite pairs, but then on closer inspection you might well notice the old scar left over from where it’s opposite equivalent was self-selected to be dropped by the tree in favour of it’s partner.
When you become practised at this you will begin to start noticing the bud arrangement from a distance, as you look at the form of tree. This is when tree identification can become very satisfying and you can really start showing off.
In conclusion, keep these three principles in mind when you’re out and about looking at trees. They will give you a solid grounding from which to build your skills up from.
If you found this interesting and want to know more, you can start building your tree ID skills right now by signing up to my FREE introductory course Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills.
Happy tree hunting folks.