Bark, Buds, & Twigs: An Introduction to Winter Tree Identification

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This article was featured in the Winter 2019 issue of Explore, our quarterly magazine for members.
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by Tom Lautzenheiser, Mass Audubon Regional Scientist

Without their leafy cloaks, winter woodlands in Massachusetts expose their bones, from slopes and ledges to swales and hollows—a wash of unknown brown and gray trunks, branches chattering in the wind.

But with a little practice and a field guide or two, you will discover that everything needed to identify a tree is available in the dormant season, helping your identification skills year-round.

No Leaves? No Problem!

Alder in winter on snowy road
Alder in winter

Many beginners focus on leaf identification as a means to tree identification and, in some ways, this makes a lot of sense: leaves are usually distinctive enough to identify, and they’re observable for much of the year (or in the case of most conifers, all year).

Even without leaves, there are still abundant clues to identify an individual tree species, including the overall silhouette or shape of the tree; the branching pattern; and any lingering fruits, cones, or catkins (cylindrical flower clusters such as those found on willows or alders, for example).

The most effective way to hone your winter tree ID skills, though, is to take a closer look at bark and twigs.

Basically, Bark

Red Maple bark closeup © Jillian Scannell
Red Maple bark © Jillian Scannell

Veteran woods-walkers can take a brief glance around a forested spot and accurately name most trees without hesitation. The secret? Familiarity with the range of variation in bark characteristics within and between tree species.

The challenge with bark is that it is highly variable, depending on its age and other factors. If you’re consulting a field guide, note that many guides tend to depict bark of middle-aged trees.

Here in Massachusetts, it’s worth focusing briefly on the bark of one species since it is ubiquitous—red maple is the single most common tree in the Commonwealth, with a population of approximately 300 million trunks.

Winter trees © Kati Seiffer
© Kati Seiffer

It grows in a wide range of conditions, from forested swamps to dry ridges and everywhere in between. Red maple is a "tree of a thousand barks"—sometimes smooth, sometimes shaggy, sometimes "plate-y," and sometimes with different textures on each side of a single tree.

By the time you’ve developed your bark identification skills enough to confidently distinguish red maple in all its forms, your eye will be able to pick up clues in texture, color, pattern, and shape. From there, identifying other trees by their bark will come more easily.

Twig It

Although you may need a hand lens or magnifying glass to see the finer details, twigs provide the most reliable, if technical, means to identify trees in winter. Features of twigs, including their arrangement on the branches, flower and leaf buds, leaf scars (the marks left behind by leaves after they fall), and pith (the core of the twig), add up to a set of characteristics that help identify each tree species. If you want to readily distinguish between, for instance, certain oaks or hickories, reach for a twig.

Tree Time

To really master winter tree identification, there is no substitute for spending time in the woods. Practicing with bark and twigs will soon have you recognizing dormant-season trees like old friends, and even help you when you come across something new.

Venture out with a field guide or join one of the many Mass Audubon programs on winter tree identification!

Helpful Guides 

Cover of "Identifying Trees" by Michael Williams

Michael Williams’s Identifying Trees: An All-Season Guide to Eastern North America and A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast by Mark Mikolas are good starting points for learning to identify our local trees, with somewhat different aims and approaches.

   

Bark identification and its vocabulary is now much easier with the publication of Michael Wojtech’s Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast, which features an easy-to-use key system along with hundreds of photos and illustrations to guide readers toward an identification.

   

Cover of "Trees of Eastern North America"

Trees of Eastern North America, by Gil Nelson, Christopher J. Earle, and Richard Spellenberg, is an in-depth presentation of tree-related information that covers more than 800 species of trees (many more than occur in New England), but in rich detail for those interested in learning beyond the basics.

   

Purchase these and more great field guides in the Mass Audubon Shop!