Identifying 6 common trees… …in Winter

I wrote this last year but completely failed to gather enough twigs to photograph and illustrate the article. Waddya know, exactly the same thing has happened this year, so instead I’ve unearthed some lovely old botanical illustrations which include the look of the trees bare branches and which, hopefully, illustrate the various differences. Perhaps next winter I will manage to collect all the twigs and include them here too!

Long term readers with excellent memories might recall that this time last year I told you about the “idents” of my horticulture course: weekly tests to correctly identify and name (in Latin, natch) various different plants.

And my garden design course this year continues in a similar vein. Though, if the first week is anything to go by, at a slightly more advanced and brain-taxing level.

For, yesterday, I had to identify eight trees by looking at twigs. Twigs!

I’ve been keen to improve my tree knowledge for some time now, so I attacked this (rather difficult) task with gusto.

I thought I’d share my newly-gleaned knowledge with you, in case anyone else has a burning desire to match twig to tree in these bleak leaf-free months.

All illustrations below are from wikimedia.

If I remember, I’ll come back to these trees in the summer and show you photos of them all in full leaf as well.

1. Ash

Fraxinus excelsior

Botanical illustration of ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

The thing to look out for identify ash branches in winter are the dark black buds at the end of the twigs, right at the end of the twigs.

The rest of the year, you can spot an ash from its leaves: a group of them held together on a leaf stem (actually, each “leaf” is really known as a “leaflet,” horticultural fact lovers…) They turn yellow in Autumn.

It’s a beautiful tree, I think, though suffering from ash dieback in the UK at the moment, and therefore not planted very often. (I remember a bit of a hoo-hah when someone used one at Chelsea a few years back. The designer (I can no longer remember who, I’m afraid) argued that the tree would be fine for 10 years or so, after which point you would probably be planning to replace trees in your garden anyway, whether they were suffering from a disease or not. It struck me as a bit of a poor argument at the time…)

2. Alder

Alnus glutinosa

Botanical illustration of alder (Alnus glutinosa)

The cool thing about an alder in winter is that it has both catkins and fruits on the plant at once. The catkins arrive in late winter / early Spring, starting out as small purple bobbly things and the fruit remains from the Summer before, by winter time turned to a dark brown oval shape.

3. Beech

Fagus sylvatica

Illustration of beech (Fagus sylvatica)

In mild winters, beech trees will keep their leaves until Spring. The dried out, brown leaves cling to the branches and can look absolutely stunning, especially with sun shining through them.

If the branches do retain the leaves, they’re fairly easy to recognise since few trees do this. You’re likely looking at a beech or a hornbeam and the way to tell the difference between them is to look at the edge of the leaf. A beech’s leaf edge is smooth (see the pic above), whereas a hornbeam’s leaf edge has lots and lots of little jaggedy teeth (see the hornbeam entry below for more…)

You can also take a look at the emerging leaf buds which come out in sharp points at the end of the twigs, sharper than those of the hornbeam.

4. Hornbeam

Carpinus betulus

Botanical illustration of hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Very similar, when in leaf, to the beech (above), a hornbeam also retains its dried leaves throughout winter and is often used as a hedge for this reason.

Look for the jagged teeth along the edges of the leaves and you’ve likely got a hornbeam.

5. Oak

Quercus robur

Botanical illustration of an oak (Quercus robur)

Ah the lovely oak; probably the one tree most people can happily identify. From its distinctive leaves to the acorns, it’s fairly easy to spot for most of the year. Sometimes it, too, keeps its leaves in winter which makes life a lot easier.

If not, look out for clusters of smooth brown buds at the very tips of the twigs.

6. Horse chestnut

Aesculus hippocastanum

Botanical illustration of horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

Easy to spot in winter, despite the lack of conkers, by the large brown sticky bud at the very end of the twig.

A fabulous tree in parks, with attractive leaves, lovely white flowers in the Spring and, of course, the brilliant Autumnal conkers.

Tell me, do you have a favourite winter tree?

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