Monday, December 19, 2022

Winter Identification of Deciduous Trees and Shrubs

Several ironwood trees with brown leaves in a snowy understory.

In winter, trees and shrubs can be identified using twigs, bark, overwintering fruit and sometimes leaves. This post offers some tips and terms for winter ID. A printable version is available for free through the Downloads tab.  

Tip #1: If they're within reach, look at twigs. 

A twig of green ash showing nodes, brown, blunt buds, and pale, semicircular leaf scars.

As in this photograph of Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), look for the size, color, shape and texture of terminal, or end, buds and lateral, or side, buds (b). Lateral buds are attached at nodes (a) and are arranged in one of four patterns:
  • Alternate: One bud per node   
  • Opposite: Paired, or two buds per node
  • Subopposite: Paired but not quite opposite
  • Whorled: Three buds per node
Green Ash has opposite buds (d). 

The size and shape of leaf scars (c) can also help identify a species. These scars are left by petioles, or leaf stalks, when they fall from the tree. Green Ash typically has light, semicircular leaf scars.


Tip #2: Within leaf scars, look for vascular bundle scars.

These scars are made when strands of water- and food-conducting cells are severed in fall. Their size, number and arrangement are typical for a species. Some are easier to see with a magnifying lens. 

A series of three photos showing the vascular bundle scars of green ash, red elderberry and Catalpa.

Above left: Green Ash bundle scars are small, brown dots arranged in a semicircle.
Center: The bundle scars of Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are raised, irregular shapes arranged at the points and along the sides of a triangular leaf scar. 
Right: The bundle scars of Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) are light brown dots arranged in an oval.

Tip #3: Look at bark. 

Bark color and texture are helpful clues but can change with age. Also look for lenticels, spots or irregular shapes on the bark of younger trees or shrubs. In the photographs of Green Ash below, lenticels are the white spots on the reddish-brown bark of the sapling shown on the left (arrows).

On the right is a mature Green Ash showing the typical honeycomb-like pattern of ridges and furrows of its bark.

Two photos showing the reddish-brown, speckled bark of a green ash sapling and the gray, honeycombed bark of a mature tree.

Tip #4: Look for overwintering fruit.

Some species retain their fruits, or parts of them, well into winter. Also look under the shrub or tree for fruits that may be on the ground or on top of the snow.

A panel of four photos showing the overwintering fruits of winged burning bush, box elder, Kentucky coffee tree, and Amur cork tree.

Clockwise from top left: Red capsule walls of Winged Burning Bush, Euonymus alatus; samaras of Box Elder, Acer negundo; pods of Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioicus, each 3 to 4 inches (7-10 cm) long; and the fruits of Amur Cork Tree, Phellodendron amurense

Tip #5: A few species hold on to their leaves.

Some trees are marcescent -- their leaves turn brown but aren't shed in fall. In this region, oaks (Quercus), Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) and Blue Beech (Carpinus caroliniana) are among the few trees that are marcescent. 

Below is Ironwood, an understory tree that retains its leaves through winter. 

Ironwood trees with brown leaves in a snowy understory.

Tip #6: Remember MAD Cap Buck Horse.

Bud arrangement -- alternate, opposite, subopposite or whorled -- can quickly narrow choices for identification. One way to remember which species have an opposite arrangement is the mnemonic MAD Cap Buck Horse:

M            Maples (Acer)

A            Ash (Fraxinus)

D            Dogwoods (Cornus, except for alternate-leaved dogwood, C. alternifolia)

Cap        Plants that are or were in the family Caprifoliaceae, including honeysuckles (Lonicera), wolfberry or snowberry (Symphoricarpos), elderberry (Sambucus) and viburnums (Viburnum). 

Buck Horse    Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra) and Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

Although this mnemonic is helpful, it doesn't include all trees and shrubs with opposite buds. For example, Wahoo and Burning Bush, genus Euonymus, also have opposite buds. So does Bladdernut, Staphylea trifolia, an understory shrub.

Most remaining species have alternate buds. Common Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, is unusual in having subopposite buds. Catalpa, another unusual species, has whorled buds. 

Tip #7: Look at the pith.

The pith is the center of a branchlet or twig. The appearance of the pith -- hollow or solid, color, texture -- can help confirm the identity of a tree or shrub. For example, honeysuckle shrubs (Lonicera, left photo below) have hollow piths, and Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa, right photo below) has a soft, yellow pith.

Two photos showing the cut twigs of honeysuckle and red elderberry.

Tip #8: Try these guides.

The LEAF Program from UW-Stevens Point is a K-12 forestry education initiative that offers many online resources. Under Curriculum & Resources, choose LEAF Tree Identification Tools. The LEAF Winter Tree ID Key is available there as a downloadable PDF.

Pocket Reference for Winter Tree Identification. Champaign County Forest Preserves, Mahomet, IL.

Fruit and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs, by William M. Harlow, PhD. Reprint edition, 1959. Dover Publications, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-486-20511-8. 

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