Christmas has come and gone and the New Year is but a memory. The celebrations are over and now we are in January, the coldest month. The days are short and dark and spring seems a lifetime away. Many animals are hibernating and even the plants lie dormant, awaiting the warmer days to come. But even the bleakness of winter has a beauty of its own – the frosted cobwebs, the morning mists and the bare trees standing starkly to attention in our fields.
Without their leaves to give clues, you may find it hard to tell which kind of trees you can see. But, with a little bit of knowledge, you’ll discover that this time of year is an excellent opportunity to get to know our tree species. Without the dense, surrounding foliage of spring and summer, you can get a clear and close up picture of a tree. So, to help you identify leafless winter trees, I’ve put together a list of things to look out for:
- Leaves – Yes, I know I we’re talking about leafless trees, but leaves are still the best clue you have. Look on the ground at the base of the tree. There should be one predominant type of fallen leaf and this will belong to the tree you want to identify. Get to know which leaves belong to which species and you’ll find the rest easy
- Buds – If there are no recognisable leaves on the ground then buds are the next thing to look at. The shape, size, colour and texture of tree buds differs from species to species. In the winter trees are forming buds in preparation for spring when they will grow into leaves and flowers. As with leaves, get to know each tree’s buds. There’s no easy way – books can help but an experienced tree-spotter is better
- Branches – If buds and leaves are absent, things get harder! The arrangement of a tree’s branches can help, but is much less specific than the shape of a leaf. Some species grow their branches in pairs (ash for example) whilst others grow them singularly (sycamore)
- Bark – This part of a tree can give a few clues, but be warned – it can be an unreliable witness! Tree species do have their own types of bark but these can vary due to the tree’s age, its location and its health
- General shape – Different trees, of course, have different shapes. Some species are tall and slim whilst others are round; some (like the willow) droop and others stand upright in a cone shape. But even this is not a 100% reliable method. The shape of a tree can vary depending on its environment – woodland trees are generally taller and thinner whilst field trees are shorter and bushier
It can be very hard to tell types of trees apart, even with leaves! The best way to learn is to go out and try your hand. Take an experienced friend with you or perhaps a reference book. An alternative source of information is this Woodland Trust webpage. Like all skills worth having, it will take years of practise – but it’ll be well worth it in the end! To test yourself before you venture outside, you could have a go at our quiz on British trees. See how many you can identify!