Winter Tree Identification

During the winter, most trees lose their leaves presenting a fun and sometimes challenging way to identify trees. Rather than examining the leaves of a tree, winter tree identification takes a closer look at the more subtle characteristics of the tree, such as the branches, twigs, buds, and bark.

Oftentimes it is useful to use a field guide or dichotomous key to guide you through the process. One of the first questions for winter tree identification is determining if the tree is conifer or deciduous. Conifer trees will maintain their color and leaves (needles) all year-round while deciduous trees loose their leaves in the fall and grow back in the spring.





The next step in the process is to examine the branches to see if the tree has alternate or opposite branching. Alternate branching is when twigs grow off the main branch in an alternating pattern one at a time. Opposite branching is when twigs grow off the main branch in pairs.





There are far less trees that have opposite branching so it’s easy to remember them using a short acronym: MAD Buck which stands for Maple Ash Dogwood Buck-eye/Horse Chestnut.

Each tree species has unique bud characteristics in it’s shape, size, color and texture. Some buds can have conspicuous terminal buds or are scale like and produce flowers or leaves.


Saucer Magnolia – green-grayish color, oval shaped, fuzzy  terminal bud, produces flowers


Red Maple – reddish/brown color, clustered, globular buds, produces leaves


Sugar Maple – reddish, has scales, pointed bud, produces leaves

Check out Andreas’ video from the Branching Out winter tree identification workshop last weekend at the Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston National Historical Park, which explains some of the characteristics for identifying trees during the winter:

Do you have any tips for identifying trees during the winter? Next time you are outside, take a look at the trees and see if you can identify any and share your experience in our comments section!

Drawings for this blog provided by Andreas Aluia

3 responses to “Winter Tree Identification

  1. Great information in the post about specific traits to observe when identifying trees in the winter. Are the photos from trees located in the Charlestown Navy Yard?


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