Naturalist Notes – Winter Tree ID for Beginners

By Penny Dunbar
Winter is a wonderful time to go outside, get some physical exercise and appreciate the wonder of the trees in our local parks. What better reason do you need to get outside then learning to identify trees in the winter without their leaves? Snow-covered trees are breathtakingly beautiful during the winter months. Trees provide us with so much including oxygen, wood and paper products, a home for wildlife, food, and in February even maple syrup.
Many people are intimidated with tree identification, especially in the winter. Even without leaves, many trees are recognizable during the winter months. Actually, the ability to identify trees in winter is a valuable skill that will strengthen your tree identification throughout the year. Ask some key questions to narrow down the field. Most important is to pay attention to detail. What kind of tree is it? Where is it located? First, is the tree deciduous or coniferous? Deciduous trees are hard woods and lose their leaves in the fall. Coniferous or softwoods have needles and scales. We will focus this article on identifying deciduous trees.
Many mature native trees are easily identifiable by their bark and is an easy place to start when learning tree identification. A few examples of common trees that can be easily identified by their bark are black cherry, sycamore, American beech and hackberry. Black cherry is an easy tree to identify because of the dark potato chip shaped bark. The hackberry has a light gray bark and is covered with warty or cork-like projections. The sycamore has a smooth whitish bark that peels off in irregular patches to reveal darker underneath. The American beech tree has a smooth gray thin bark and leaves often stay on during the winter.
If identification is not possible or uncertain by bark alone, look at the branching pattern. Are they opposite or alternate? MADBuck is a term used to learn trees with opposite branching, which are the maple, ash, dogwood or buckeye/horse-chestnut. All other species are alternate, excluding Northern Catalpa which has a whorled branching pattern. Most of the Ohio trees are alternately branched trees and include white oak, black walnut and bitternut hickory.
Bud features are another important factor to consider even in winter. Buds come in different shapes and sizes and can help identify a tree. Every tree also has a distinct shape. You can identify trees in winter by looking at the shapes formed by their trunks and bare limbs.
Tree identification is a fun family activity. Get the kids outside and become nature detectives and look for clues. Take a look under trees to see if you can find leaves and/or nuts which can also help solve the mystery. Be careful not to misidentify the tree by picking up leaves or fruit from a neighboring tree by mistake. Use your senses to identify trees. You can observe them, feel them and even smell them.
Begin by trying to identify just a few trees. Once you learn to identify trees, you will be amazed at all the trees you will notice and become more observant of as you look around in the parks. Also, you may just unleash the motivation to identify more trees and appreciate this wonderful creation that surrounds us.