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Getting to Know Winter Trees

Trees can appear very drab in the winter months and we can easily pass them without giving them a second look, desperately awaiting warmer months for lush green leaves or colourful flowers. However, we can find a lot of beauty when we spend a little time looking more closely.

Key features to look for are:

- pattern of its branches

- where bud are found

- colours of buds

- texture of bark

If you are keeping a nature journal, it would be great to look out for some of the following.

Some common winter tree features are:

Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus

The twigs are pink-brown and have no hairs and buds remain green all winter.

Horse chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum

Smooth twigs and sticky, oval, dark red buds. Buds are arranged along the twigs in pairs and each pair is set at 90° to the previous pair. The twigs display leaf scars that are 'horse shoe' shaped.

Beech Fagus sylvatica

Leaf buds are pointed and not pressed against the twigs. On mature trees, beech bark looks like it has ridges or shallow cracks running horizontally on the long, straight tree trunk and is recognizable due to its beautiful, silvery-gray bark. Beech can hold their leaves throughout winter.

Rowan (aka mountain ash) Sorbus aucuparia

The bark is smooth, shiny and grey. Winter twigs are grey with hairy buds, more so when young.

Common (English) oak Quercus robur

In winter it can be identified by its clusters of rounded buds.

Alder Alnus glutinosa

Male catkins are yellow and come out in the spring whilst in winter, the female catkins look like cones and have purple twigs. Its bark is fissured and dark.

The catkins attract birds, including the siskin, redpoll and goldfinch.

Ash Fraxinus excelsior

They have smooth twigs with black, velvety leaf buds arranged opposite each other and flattened twigs.

Silver birch Betula pendula

Silver birch's main attraction has to be its silvery-white bark that are very striking and almost luminous on winter days.

Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna

Spines emerge from the same point as the buds - this is how they are distinguished from blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) which have buds on the spines in winter.

Common hazel Corylus avellana

Hazel has male and female flowers on the same shrub. The male flower is long and yellow and female is smaller and red.

A great summary of trees based on their bark, buds and thorns from the tree council can be found below:


Smooth bark: beech, aspen, hornbeam, blackthorn, hazel, white poplar, grey poplar, rowan

Peeling bark: cherries, birches, planes, field maple, paperbark maple

Ridged bark: sweet chestnut, oaks, ash, elder, willow, black poplar, lime

Plated bark: horse chestnut, sycamore, alder, crab apple, hawthorn, yew


Opposite: horse chestnut, maples, ash, spindle, elder, box elder

Alternate: sweet chestnut, birch, hazels, apple, acacia, whitebeams, goat willow, poplars, beech, hornbeam, bird cherry, alder, walnut

Alternate zigzag: elms, limes, mulberries

Clustered : oak, many types of cherry, blackthorn, plum,

Fuzzy : pear, apple, rowan, field maple

Spines or Thorns

Thorns: hawthorn, blackthorn, cherry plum, purging buckthorn, broad-leaved cockspur thorn and honey locust

Spines: Berberis shrub, some false acacias


None of the photos are my own and all references are linked to the photos. Other references used are:

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