Connecting People with Nature

Winter Tree Identification

How to recognize Northeast Ohio trees in winter.

Winter Tree Identification Part 2, Trees with an Opposite Branching Pattern
Winter Tree Identification Part 3, Trees with an Alternate Branching Pattern
How to tell common trees by their bark

Winter tree identification is a skill you can acquire through practice and a little help from a field guide. With your field guide in hand, or with the help of a naturalist friend, you will be able to identify most trees in our area even in the dead of winter, when not a leaf, nor nut, nor seed pod can be found under the snow.

Use your skills of observation to systematically size up any tree that catches your eye. The first thing you will notice is whether it is a conifer or a broad-leaved tree. If the tree is broad-leaved, you will next note its growth form. Does the tree have branches radiating off the trunk nearly horizontally, or do its branches come from the top of the trunk and reach for the sky? The growth form of the tree will be determined in part by the species, and partly by the light conditions it grew in.

For example, elm trees (Ulmus spp.) generally grow in a vase shaped configuration, with the branches growing vertically from the trunk toward the sky. This is more pronounced in the forest, where the tree may have had to grow upward to compete for light. A sugar maple (Acer saccharum) on the other hand, will grow broad and spreading, its branches reaching outward in the open, while in a forest, the sugar maple may take on a more compact form due to competition. By observation, learn the growth form, or habit, of the common trees in Northeast Ohio. This will eventually allow you to reliably identify trees from a distance, whether it is from the highway, or from an overlook far above the forest.

After looking at the growth form, look closely at the bark. Take note of the texture, color, and patterns of the bark. Note lenticels (small bumps which break through the bark of some species, giving a striated appearance), cracking patterns, and any other unique or interesting characteristic of the bark.

Some trees may be quickly and reliably identified by looking only at the bark. For example, the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) has smooth, light gray bark with an almost satin sheen to it. No other tree in the forest is easily confused with a healthy beech. In the bottomlands, if you see a tree with a white trunk high in the air, while the lower trunk has a rough bark which peels away in layers, exposing shades of green and brown before uncovering the white surface below these peeling layers, the tree is a sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). Check out this page onhow to tell common trees by their bark

After examining the bark, look at the young twigs, and the branching pattern of the tree. Does the young growth appear to occur in pairs, or alternately? For example, on "opposite" trees like the ash (Fraxinus spp.), the ends of young branches high in the tree appear as pitchforks, which could "poke you in the ash" if you didn't know to watch for that behavior in a pesky ash tree.

Only four groups of trees native to Northeast Ohio exhibit an "opposite" leaf arrangement. These are the Maples, Ashes, Dogwoods, and BUCKeyes. You can remember these four with the simple pneumonic device "MAD BUCK." Most other native trees in our area exhibit an alternate pattern, where leaves are attached one at each node. One notable exception to this is Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) which may have leaves in whorls of three at a node.

Once you have determined whether the tree is alternate or opposite, look closely at the leaf scars. These are the spots where leaves were attached to the tree during the growing season. Note the shape (such as shield shaped, oval, round, crescent, or shamrock shaped), color, any hairs that are observable around the scar, and the arrangement of the bundle scars. Bundle scars are where the vascular tissue of the leaves were attached to the vascular system of the tree in order to pass nutrients and water between the leaves and the tree. A small magnifying glass is useful in observing these details. Also note whether there is a stipule scar. This will appear as a line running around the twig perpendicular with the twig. If one is present, note how far around the twig it goes. In come cases, the stipule may still be present, in which case, you should take note of that as well.

Now, observe the buds. How big are they? Are the lateral buds (those on the sides of the twigs) and the terminal bud (the one at the very end of the twig) nearly the same size? Is the terminal bud present? Do scales cover the buds? If so, how many? What color are the buds? Are they furry? All of these can give you clues as to which species of tree you have encountered.

It is sometimes useful to clip a twig off and cut it longitudinally to examine the inner pith of the twig. If you do this, you will note the color, and whether it is chambered or continuous. However, on public lands, we do not recommend using this characteristic. If you cut twigs from trees within parks, they will no longer be there for others to observe, and you will have impacted someone else's enjoyment of the undisturbed setting.

Probably the most telling clue will be nuts, fruits or berries still on the tree, or laying beneath the tree. If you can find one of these, and are reasonably sure it is from the tree you are interested in, you may be able to identify the tree very easily.

While this page is intended only to be an overview of winter tree identification, the following links will take you to a summary of identifying characteristics of some of Northeast Ohio's more common forest trees. While we only take you to the genus of most of the listed trees, a good comprehensive field guide will contain enough detail to allow you to reliably identify most trees to species even in the winter.

Winter Tree Identification Part 2, Trees with an Opposite Branching Pattern
Winter Tree Identification Part 3, Trees with an Alternate Branching Pattern
How to tell common trees by their bark

These tips should be enough to get you started on winter tree identification in Northeast Ohio. As you become comfortable with your skills, you will need a field guide to begin differentiating many more characteristics which will increase the reliability of your identification.'s feed chicklet's email chicklet's e-newsletter chicklet
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