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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Photographing trees

Earlier this year I resolved to spend lots of time this summer photographing (and identifying) trees for my Instagram feed. (See A love of trees for more.)

Now, if you follow me on instagram you can’t fail to have been struck by a simple fact: you haven’t remotely been spammed with hundreds and hundreds of tree pictures.

Why not? It turns out it’s really tough to photograph a tree; decent camera on your phone or not.

Myoung Ho Lee trees
© Myoung Ho Lee

Recently, I came across a wonderful South Korean photographer called Myoung Ho Lee who manages exactly what I couldn’t succeed in doing and I had to share these images with you.

He takes the most awe-inspiring photos, each tree with a simple white sheet hung behind it.

Myoung Ho Lee trees
© Myoung Ho Lee

I never fail to be impressed by trees. Of course, flowers are really great too. They’re pretty and you can arrange them in a vase and suddenly even the dingiest most hovel-like room in your house is transformed into a place of beauty. But there’s something about the immense majesty of trees – their sturdy immovability, great age and refusal to be brought indoors – that makes them my plant of choice every time.

Myoung Ho Lee trees
© Myoung Ho Lee

If ever I’m feeling glum, or bored, or just out-of-sorts for whatever reason, a short walk to the park and a stroll under the canopy of ancient trees always, but always, brings a spring back to my step.

I think that’s why I love these photos so very much. They seem to say: Here it is,  just a tree, on a white background.

Who needs more than that?

All photographs copyright Myoung Ho Lee. See the website of the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York for more photos from the series.

A love of trees

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know have a bit of a penchant for photographing flowers. (For which read, my feed is stuffed full of floral photos, mostly taken on my daily wanderings round Peckham Rye Park.*)

Rose | Wolves in LondonFlower | Wolves in LondonMagnolia stellata | Wolves in Londonwisteria | Wolves in London

But there was another reason that my feed was 90% flowers: my crappy iPhone 3 which objected strongly to photographing anything indoors in focus and most other big things outside too. Flowers, for some reason, it was fairly happy with.

Since I’ve just upgraded to a phone with a much better camera, though, I thought it was time to branch out (geddit?) and move past the individual flower to whole trees as well.

Acer | Wolves in London

I’ve developed a bit of a love of trees since starting my horticulture course last year. I mean, it’s not that I ever didn’t like them, but now I’ve started to really notice their individual characteristics.

The way a birch tree’s branches sway and flitter in the wind; the amazing unique leaf shape of a Gingko biloba; the fabulous bark on a mature horse chestnut…

Gingko biloba | Wolves in LondonTree trunk | Wolves in London

But, I have to confess, I’m still able to identify only a very few trees, so my aim over this summer is to photograph lots and find out what they are.

If this sounds vaguely interesting to you too, follow me over on Instagram to see some more. (All photos in this post are from my feed.)

And if you’re a good tree recogniser, I will be calling on you for help over the coming months!

*A park I love and to which I highly recommend a visit if you’re local. You can see more about in my post from last year: A stroll round Peckham Rye Park.