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Identifying Trees in Winter

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The under side of hemlock needles have a white stripe.

by Henry Homeyer

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – Most of us enjoy knowing the names of our acquaintances including trees. It’s tougher to identify trees in winter because most have no leaves, which is how we generally recognize trees. But by observing overall shape, bark, branching patterns, buds and the presence or absence of leaves, you should be able to pick out several common trees quite easily.

The trees discussed here include five that keep all or some of their leaves; the rest lose all their leaves. The first group includes white pine, Canadian hemlock and spruce, all of which have green needles, their form of leaves. Oaks and beeches are broad-leafed trees that hold all or some of their leaves, though the leaves are dead and brown. Young trees hold more of the dead leaves than more mature ones.

White pine (Pinus strobus) has clusters of five soft needles, each about three inches long. Branches grow in whorls off the trunk; each year the tree grows just one new set of branches, so you can see how fast they grow by observing the distance between whorls on the main trunk. From a distance you can see clumps of needles pointing up near the top of the tree.

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Beech leaves tend to linger on the branches in winter.

Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) has short, flat needles that feel soft to the touch and that have a white line on the underneath side of each. It is one of the few trees in the woods that can grow in deep shade as well as full sun.

There are several kinds of spruce (Picea spp.), but all share this characteristic, which will separate them from hemlock trees: turn over a branch and observe the color of the leaves. If the needles on the top side and the bottom of the bough are the same color, it is a spruce. Spruce needles are pointy and sharp. Spruce hold more snow on their branches than other evergreens, too, often leaving little snow beneath the tree.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is most easily identified by its smooth gray bark; some older trees have bark that is scarred by a fungus. Their buds are up to an inch long with sharp pointy ends; they are shaped a bit like little cigars. Young beech trees hold lots of leaves but the older ones tend to lose most. Leaves are 2 to 5 inches long, oval, and have serrated edges.

Oaks ( Quercus spp.) usually hold at least a few leaves. The leaves are lobed, often ending in a sharp point. There are a few oaks that have different shaped leaves, but you probably won’t come across one. Acorns are a dead giveaway, too, though most acorns have fallen by now.

Buds and small (side) branches are either opposite each other on a branch or they alternate, one here, one farther along on the other side. Only three common trees have opposite branching: the maples (many species), ash (four species), and horse chestnut. There are several kinds of shrubs that have opposite branching, including viburnums, most dogwoods, lilacs and honeysuckles. Don’t be deceived by the fact that often twigs are broken off, so that the branching pattern may not appear at first glance to be opposite.

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Poplars have light colored bark. Here they are with pines in background.

Of the many kinds of maples (Acer spp.), sugar and red maples are common in most woods. At the end of each branch you will see three buds: a terminal bud and a bud on each side of it. The buds are sharply pointed on sugar maples, less so on red maples. Red maple buds get redder as the winter progresses. Get to know a few big old sugar maples during sugaring season, and you will soon recognize the color of bark and the overall shape. Red maples tend to have branches that spread less than sugar maples, and they can live in wet places (but sugar maples rarely do).

White ash (Fraxinus americanus) also has opposite buds, but they are much more rounded than those on maples. The key characteristic for me is the bark, which is furrowed into diamond shaped areas on mature trees. You will also see that small branches on an ash are also much less delicate than those on a maple. Looking up at branches, you will see that they have lots of lumps and bumps near their tips.

White or paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is one of the best known of our native trees: it has bright, white bark that tends to peel as the tree gets bigger. Other birches include gray and yellow birches. The former has dirty gray bark; the latter has finely peeling silvery or golden bark. All have horizontal marks on the bark called lenticels. Lenticels allow air into the inner growing layer of the tree. Their twigs are fine, and may have catkins (narrow pollen-producing structures 2 inches long or so) towards the top of the tree.

One of our most common trees is the poplar (Populus deltoides). Poplars are fast growing, short-lived trees that jump up anywhere, even in poor soil along roadsides. They tolerate wet or dry locations and are immune to road salt. I recognize them from the color of the bark: it is greenish to putty-colored, particularly up high. It is often an irregular-shaped tree that is considerably taller than wide.

So take a walk in the woods. See what you can identify. And bring along a tree identification book to help. I like A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, as it has information about everything you can see outdoors in winter, not just the trees.

Homeyer is the author of four gardening books. His website is Reach him at [email protected]. 

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