We all know that tree leaves change colour in autumn, that acorns grow on oak and conkers grow on horse chestnut, but can you tell me what the autumn fruit of the hornbeam looks like? For anyone looking to improve their tree identification skills autumn provides us with many distinctive signs such as fruits, nuts, berries and leaf colour that we can use to recognise our native and common tree species. In this blog I’ll introduce you to some of clues to look out for in autumn and break down the differences between common trees which often get confused. You can get outdoors and spot these clues for yourself with a free download I’ve created; Autumn Trees Guide, which you can get your hands on just below.
By the way, if you love trees, but struggle to tell one species from another, then you could enroll in my FREE Tree Identification Course online. More details can be found at the end of the article.
3 Common Maple Trees
Maple leaves are quite a distinctive shape, just think of the Canadian flag. But we have several maple species commonly growing in our countryside and when it comes to including formal planting and gardens that numbers goes sky high. We shall steer clear of those for now. Let’s just look at the differences between our 3 most common maple trees which you’re most likely to see on a country walk. We will look at the difference in their leaves in autumn and also their fruits.
So, we have 3 different maples each with their characteristic 5-lobed leaf shape. But they are also clearly quite different, especially as autumn reveals it’s colours. Let’s break that down…
Field Maple (Acer campestre) – our only native maple in the UK. Firstly, the leaves are much smaller than the other two species here and the tree itself is smaller when mature also. The lobes are more rounded than the others. But a key difference to look out for is the leaf colour in autumn, which across the whole tree will be a bright yellow. The best example is the leaf seen in the extreme left. Once they fall, they will turn brown.
Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) – a commonly planted non-native maple. We’ve got a much larger leaf here than the field maple, but also the presence of Tar Spot Fungus – have you noticed those black spots? You don’t get these spots on our other two maples here, so it’s a dead giveaway. There’s something interesting about the autumn leaf colour too, in that there isn’t much to shout about. Typically you won’t see a great display of colour from our sycamores, they generally just turn a dirty/patchy brown. This is in contrast to our other two species here. Take caution though; sometimes we do get yellow leaves across the tree, but this is less common. Natures loves not conforming to simple rules 🙂
Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) – next to sycamore this is probably the most commonly planted non-native maple in the UK, particularly in urban areas and roadsides. We have a larger leaf, like sycamore, but the lobes are much more jagged and dramatic in their form. We also can’t ignore the amazing display of colours we get from norway maple, which is a world away from sycamore at this time of year. Just look at those reds, oranges and yellows.
In summer, all these leaves are green, of course. But come the autumn you can clearly see the differences. Let’s not forget the fruits of the maples either, what many people call “helicopters.” These winged seed cases are a favourite of children who love throwing them in the air and watching them spin to the earth. Let’s take a look at the differences between our 3 maples when it comes to these “helicopters.”
You can see the clear difference in not only the typical size of the winged seeds but also their shape. Field maple seeds typically have their wings at 180 degrees to each other, whereas sycamore wings are generally at a more down-swept 45 degrees. The norway maple wings are larger again. By the way, this picture is of the seeds in summer, when they are not fully mature so be aware that in autumn the mature wings will all be brown in colour, as seen in the inset picture.
I hope that’s cleared up any confusion between these 3 common maples. Now, let’s look at some autumn berries which can be the cause of confusion.
Red Berries Everywhere
To someone starting out in tree identification, it can be easy to get confused between tree species which have similar berries, especially when they’re the same colour. Just take a look at these below…
Here we have four different native trees, each with red berries. So, how can we easily tell between them? Well although this may seem confusing at first glance there are differences to see once we slow down and look closer. Here’s my handy hints for telling these trees apart in autumn:
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – this is the 3rd display of colour we’ve had from this tree over the year. The first being the flush of spring green leaves which fill our hedgerows and roadsides. The second comes in May with the white blossom, smelling of sweet almonds. This third display are the berries themselves, known as haws. They are round to oval in shape, with a matt finish. Inside you’ll find the flesh is a yellow/green colour which surrounds a large stone. You will see less fruits per bunch than you will with the other species here. Also, look out for the thorns on the branch, which these other species don’t have.
Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) – a common shrub of hedgerows. Firstly these striking red berries grow in umbels (a cluster of stalks), unlike the hawthorn. Also, these berries are really glossy. They have a real shine to them. The flesh inside is red, with the whole berry being much less firm than the others here. Lastly, their shape is important, which is more difficult to see from the above picture, but they are partially flattened, as if their round shape has been squashed.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) – you may know this tree as the mountain ash. These berries grow from an umbel, with many berries per cluster. The seed inside is much smaller than that of hawthorn. The month you’re seeing these berries is also important too because they can appear on the tree as early as July and can persist after the leaves have fallen in autumn. So, they have a long season on the branch. Beware that there are many cultivars of rowan which are planted in urban spaces. You can even get orange or yellow berry varieties. But in the countryside, you’re unlikely to see these.
Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) – These are the largest berry of the four seen here. A feature which is difficult t pick up from this image is that the berries are peppered with white/grey spots called lenticels. Notice the latin family name ‘Sorbus’, this species is related to our rowan. So, it’s no surprise there are some similarities in how the berries look. Like the rowan, there are several cultivars of whitebeam which you might well see in urban areas and gardens, so we’re just talking about the wild native here.
We’re missing a key piece of the puzzle here though, the leaves. We need to widen our view of these trees because if we just look at the berries we’re not using all of the information available to us. Take a look at the images below and you’ll see that we have four very different leaf shapes with their respective autumn colours.
So, as we can now see, with the full picture things become a little easier. This is one of the big things I ask my students to practise when they’re out identifying trees. I ask them to “Tune In” so they look at the bigger picture before concentrating on the details. Clues like leaf shape, bark, or even the place where the tree is growing can tell us a lot about what we’re looking at.
Get Your FREE Autumn Tree Guide
I’ve created a handy guide you can use when you’re out and about looking at trees during autumn. The guide features 18 native and common British trees which have fruits, berries or nuts that you might already be familiar with but also there’s other signs here that you’ve probably never noticed before. I’ve laid out similar looking berries side by side so that you can easily distinguish between them.
You’ll also see smaller images featuring typical autumn leaf colour for each species. Notice which ones turn a distinct colour and also which ones, like alder and sycamore, don’t tend to have a display of colour at all. This too can be a useful identifying feature, once you get your eye in.
I hope you find it useful on your journey to understanding the trees around us.
Discover more About Trees
It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.
When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.
“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander
Happy tree hunting folks.