Practicing winter tree identification adds fun to outings

Posted on: January 10, 2019 | Bob Frye | Comments

Winter tree identification is tied to bark.

The smooth, steely gray bark on beech trees is a distinguishing characteristic of the species. Unfortunately, it’s not only good for winter tree identification, but a favorite of tree-carving vandals, too.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures

Colonel Mustard, with a lead pipe, in the billiard room.

Sleuths able to put together the right string of clues in the right sequence have found him guilty of murder — with just such a tool in just such a location – more than a time or two over the years.

But what if he committed his nefarious acts in the winter woods? Could anyone pin him down then?

After all, just like the library is not the study is not the ballroom, a stand of oaks is not a stand of maples is not a stand of shagbark hickories.

It’s possible to tell trees apart, though, even in winter when most if not all of their leaves are on the ground. You just have to play detective and looks for clues.

One is a tree’s branches.

All trees send twigs off a main branch in one of two patterns. With deciduous trees, they’re either alternate, with twigs alternating sides the length of the branch, or they are opposite, in which cases twigs come off the branch directly opposite one another.

It’s only a handful of species that feature the opposite pattern. They include maples, ashes, dogwoods, the horse chestnut, and viburnums, such as honeysuckle.

So just by looking at branch patterns you can narrow things down a bit.

From there, look to bark.

Many tree species have distinctive bark. There’s no mistaking a beech tree, for example, given its smooth, almost steel gray bark.

Likewise, hickory – be it a shagbark or shellbark – will have long, peeling strips. Imagine narrow pieces of dried jerky, nailed to a tree at just one end, the other end jutting stiffly out. That’s what a hickory looks like.

Paper birches have thin – papery – bark that peels off horizontally, in sheets.

The bark of black cherry trees tends to be darker than most others and looks almost flaky, while the bark of ash trees has a crisscross or diamond-shaped pattern. Oaks, and particularly white oaks, have long, vertical, if shallow, striations or grooves in their bark, while black guns have very deep cracks.

In just about all cases, the older and larger a tree is, the more distinctive its bark will be.

Buds tell stories, too. Examine their shape, size and color.

The buds on a speckled alder, for example, look like tiny footballs. They stand upright – like a football erect on one point – while those on a black birch cling the branch, almost as if they’re trying to blend it and disappear.

In short, look at buds to figure out if they’re relatively long or short, pointed or more rounded, subtle or obvious.

Look for fruits, too.

Some tree species – like crabapples, for example – produce fruit that’s of major importance as a food source for wildlife. And sometimes, those fruits hang on long after their tree drops its leaves.

Similarly, hawthorn trees generally retain their round red, berry-like fruits all winter long.

Of course, there are always leaves in the winter woods. Some will still be clinging to trees; others will be on the ground beneath them.

And you can use those to figure out just what you’re looking at. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the most obvious clues, after all.

But you don’t need them. There are ways to figure out what’s what by looking at subtle hints, especially if you carry a field guide with pictures.

No matter how you go about it, though, what you learn about the trees in your forest will tell you a lot, about things like what wildlife might be in an area – or not – and why, for example.

So this winter, in the woods, channel your inner detective and start sleuthing.


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Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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