Many of us might well be able to spot an oak in winter by looking for fallen acorns or the familiar leaves, but could you tell me the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn in winter just by looking at the buds? Or do you know which trees give themselves away in winter by their bark? We might be able to identify trees in summer when their leaves are on but winter is a whole different ball game.
For anyone looking to improve their tree identification skills winter provides us with many distinctive signs such as buds, bark, twigs and fallen leaf litter that we can use to recognise our native and common tree species. The clues are all there if you know how to look.
In this blog I’ll introduce you to some of clues to look out for in winter 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; Winter 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 enrol in my FREE Tree Identification Course online. More details can be found at the end of the article.
Bud Arrangement: The BIG Giveaway
One of the first things you can ask a tree when you are trying to identify it in winter is this; “Are the buds arranged alternately or 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.
The majority of native tree species in Britain have their buds 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 the Free Winter Tree ID Guide I’ve grouped alternate budding trees separate from opposite budding trees for easy reference.
Blackthorn vs. Hawthorn
Let’s take two very common trees which often get confused. Not only are their names similar, but they also are thorny, shrubby trees which populate our hedgerows, often growing side by side.
To help confuse matters both these species have alternate buds and the buds are very small and grow in cluster at the end of the twig. So, we need to look at other clues to help us out.
The first thing to look for is leaf litter below the tree. As you can see from the picture, the leaves shapes are very different. However, this method is unreliable when you’re looking at a dense hedgerow and the two species are intertwined. How can you tell which tree the leaf has fallen from? Luckily, there are other signs we can go to also.
Looking at the bark is going to be useful here as, like the leaf litter, they are very different. The bark of blackthorn, as its name suggests, is very dark and seems to soak up the light. It is also generally quite smooth. The bark of hawthorn is much more grey to brown and fissures readily, being much more craggy.
As well as the bark you can look at the thorns, which typically you will see a lot more of on blackthorn than you will compared to hawthorn. The last sign to help us here is the autumn fruits, which can often be found still hanging on in winter.
The autumn fruit of blackthorn is the sloe. A good size fruit, around 1.5cm diameter and purple to black in colour. In winter though they are shrivelled and looking much worse for wear, with most of them having fallen already. Hawthorn in comparison holds onto it’s berries better in winter. Look for smaller, dark red berries, with an ovoid shape, growing in sparse clusters. As they dry out they darken in colour.
Looking Under The Tree
Have a good kick about in the leaf litter under a tree and you might find another big hint to what species you’re looking at. The old saying goes “the apple never falls far from the tree” and that’s good news for us in this case. I’m talking about fallen fruits and nut cases, many of which can still be found in the depths of winter, if not in the best condition.
Some trees, like the Crab Apple, have a dead giveaway with the fallen, rotting fruits. Look under an established hazelnut and you’ll most likely find empty nut shells, nibbled away by rodents and birds. Then there’s tree like out three native Limes which have special leaves called bracts, which look like nothing else you’ll find on the woodland floor and can only belong to a Lime tree. Beech mast is very reliable under mature trees and you’ll find yourself crunching in underfoot as it carpets the woodland floor. There’s much to be gained by looking down.
Now this only works if there’s something to find and also you should be wary of relying on this too heavily where the tree is crowded with others as what you’re looking at may have fallen from it’s neighbour.
By the far the most reliable method of winter tree identification is to begin with a branch and study a healthy twig and it’s buds. That way we can be sure we’re investigating the right tree and the knowledge of bud and twig is transferable no matter whether the ground below is humous or concrete.
Get Your FREE Winter Tree Guide
I’ve created a handy guide you can use when you’re out and about looking at trees during winter. The guide features 18 native and common British trees which have buds, twigs and leaf litter 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 species side by side so that you can easily distinguish between them.
The guide puts the focus firmly on the winter buds but you’ll also see smaller images featuring other clues you can look for in each species such as old fruits, leaf litter, nut cases, bark and catkins. Where I’ve included these they act as dead giveaways to which tree species you’re looking at.
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.