Taking Action for Wildlife banner

A Partnership of UNH Cooperative Extension and NH Fish and Game

The 3 B’s of Winter Tree & Shrub Identification

The 3 B’s of Winter Tree and Shrub ID: Branching, Bark, and Buds

Winter may seem like a lousy time to identify trees and shrubs. Without leaves to look at, things definitely get a little difficult, but with a few tricks (and maybe a good book) in hand you can up your botany game and learn to identify trees and shrubs without leaves! And why, you might ask, would we even bother to identify trees and shrubs in the winter?  Besides honing a skill to impress your friends and neighbors, a lot of management decisions are made in winter. The frozen ground reduces the impact of heavy machinery, making in and ideal time for a timber harvest, or wildlife habitat management. As such, it can be helpful to know what trees and shrubs are on your land to help guide management. Here are the 3 B’s of winter tree and shrub identification:

All trees and shrubs have one of two branching patterns.  They are either opposite, where twigs come off a branch opposite one another, or they are alternate, where twigs alternate up the length of the branch (see photos). Observing the pattern of branching can help narrow down what type of tree or shrub you are trying to identify. The follow families or groups of native trees and shrubs have opposite branching:

  • Maple trees
  • Ash trees
  • Horse chestnut tree
  • Dogwood trees/shrubs
  • Viburnums (arrowwood, maple-leaf viburnum, nannyberry, etc.)
  • Elderberry
Here you can see the opposite branching pattern on a maple branch. Here you can see an alternate branching pattern on an oak twig.

Buds come in all different shapes and sizes and can help in identifying a species of tree or shrub. Observe whether the buds are pointy or rounded, long or short, do they hug close to the twig or point far off to the side, or do they even have buds at all? These observations will help you narrow down the species of tree or shrub you may be looking at.

The buds of speckled alder are often described as being “football-shaped” and sit up off the branch on a stalk. The relatively large, stout bud of the shagbark hickory is distinct.
The buds of this very young black birch tree cling to the twig. If you break a black birch twig it has a strong aroma of wintergreen.  

Bark is another great tool to use in winter when identifying trees in particular, but also shrubs. The texture, color, and even smell of bark can help you identify a tree or shrub species. However, keep in mind that bark can look quite different depending on the age of a tree even within the same species. The photos below show some of the variation you might see in bark.

Red oak bark often has red coloration within the fissures of the bark, especially in older trees. The bark of mature black gum trees has very deep fissures or cracks.

Here you can see how the bark of a young shagbark hickory (left) can look quite different from an older one (right). As the tree matures the bark begins to show more of the characteristic peeling or shag for which the tree got its name.


Other Clues
Beyond branching, buds and barks, here are a couple other clues to look for in winter to help identify trees and shrubs:

Fruit – Some trees and shrubs hold onto their fruit into the winter such as the rosehips or winterberry fruit seen below.

The fruit persists through early to mid-winter on the winterberry holly. Rose fruits, called hips, often stay on the shrub in winter.

Leaves – If there isn’t snow on the ground, take a look under the tree to see if you can find leaves that might help you in further narrowing down your options.  Some trees also hold their leaves in winter such as the young beech tree shown below.

Look on the ground for other clues. Leaves persist through winter on young beech trees.

There are many books to help you learn more about winter tree and shrub identification, but here are a couple to get you started:

  • “Winter Tree Finder: A Manual for Identifying Deciduous Trees in Winter (Eastern US)” by May T. Watts and Tom Watts
  • “Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast” by Michael Wojtek
  • “Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs” by William M. Harlow, PhD

By Emma Tutein, UNH Cooperative Extension
Winter 2018 Taking Action for Wildlife Newsletter