Being able to identify common trees is not only fun, it also helps to connect us to our surroundings and communities. But what do you do in the winter when there are no leaves present? You learn to identify trees by the 3 B’s — Branches, Buds, & Bark.


A tree’s silhouette or its branching pattern can be helpful in identification. Now bare against the sky, the true shape of a tree is often revealed.

Take the branching pattern of a Black Locust, zig-zagged and disorderly, with no predictable pattern.

Often you can see the silver glint of Sycamore branches before realizing what you’re looking at. 

Although scarce since the Dutch Elm blight, there are still a few Elms who still stand. Elms are perhaps the easiest to identify by silhouette, as their shape takes on a floral look, like a bunch of flowers plopped into a vase. 

The leaf scars that remain on a branch also provide clues to a tree’s identity. Leaf scars are areas where leaves were attached to the branch. 

Take the Black Walnut scar shown above. To me, it has always resembled E.T., but to others, it’s a smiling monkey face. 

Red Maple leaf scars are “U”-shaped and Sycamore leaf scars completely encircle the new bud.  


Naturally Curious by Mary Holland

Nature Anatomy by Julia Rothman



The dormant buds formed in July or August are clues to what the tree will reveal in the Spring.

Look how the buds are arranged on the twigs of your tree. The ones along the sides of the twig are called axillary or lateral buds. The bud at the tip of the branch is called a terminal bud. Each species of tree has its own distinctive terminal bud. 

American Beech are thin, long and pointed. Red Oak and other oaks have a cluster of terminal buds instead of one. A bright, mustard yellow terminal bud is a Bitternut Hickory, and if the bud is almost black in color, Black Ash.

As you investigate, consider the size, shape and color of the buds. What about texture? Are they smooth? Furry? Sticky?

For a fun activity, bring home a few budding twigs from a tree. Place the freshly cut twigs into a vase of fresh water in a warm spot in your house. See if your buds open!


The Tree Identification Book by George W.D. Symonds

Winter Tree Finder by May Theilgaard Watts


A tree’s most stalwart characteristic. This type of identification is also helpful when the leaf canopy is too high up for proper recognition, no matter the season. If you practice, you begin to see patterns. Beech bark has distinctive smooth, gray bark. Shagbark hickory is just that, shaggy. White ash’s arrow shapes can be easily remembered by A = Arrow = Ash. Hornbeams or “musclewoods” will make you think you stumbled into Planet Fitness with their ropey, brawny, muscle-like appearance. Some say that the bark of older Black Cherry trees looks like burnt potato chips. And you’ll know when you come across a Honey Locust…look, but don’t touch! Its thorny armor keeps everyone far away.


Bark by Michael Wojtech, One Small Square: Woods by Donald M. Silver


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