Identifying trees in winter

Published on January 17th 2019
Which buds are sticky? Where are the ones shaped like boxing gloves? How do I find out what tree these long brown buds belong to?
These were some of the questions posed by the kids as we collected twigs for identification this afternoon. We started to learn about trees last year and by the time spring arrived they could confidently identify matt black ash buds, bright dogwood stems and red lime buds.
This winter we’ve started using the hand lens to look at the bud scales and hairs that help distinguish different species and moving (in my daughter’s words) from beginner to intermediate level!
Here are some of the key species you might find on a winter walk along with some of the drawings we did on our return to record our specimens:

Field Maple

These buds are soft and hairy – the white hairs are easily visible through a hand lens. They occur in pairs along the twigs, often on short stalks. We had to fashion a long branch with a hooked end to pull down the field maple buds from up high so we could see them clearly.


Our favourite and easily recognisable with its velvet matt black buds in opposite pairs and clear leaf scars below the buds. A great specimen to paint.


The reddish twigs are a good clue even before you reach the buds which lie along the branches in opposing pairs. You can perform a magic trick with the leaves by carefully separating the upper and lower portions of the leaf and leaving the vascular strands in tact. The lower part of the leaf will appear to float in mid air, suspended by the transparent strands.


Long, slender buds tapering to a thin point, lifted away from the twig. Bud scales are visible under the hand lens.


Boxing glove shaped reddish purple buds on a short stem, sometimes with a sticky coating. The cone-like fruits hanging on alder in the winter also help with identification.

Horse Chestnut

Large, sticky buds with brown scales and distinctive horseshoe shaped leaf scars beneath the buds. Easily distinguished by their size compared to other buds.


Blunt rounded red buds on bright red stems (in new growth). Buds occur alternatively on stems. A common parkland and street tree, we have a hedgerow of lime nearby with low branches perfect for collecting specimens.


Many-scaled brown buds, distinguished at a distance by a cluster of terminal buds at the end of branches.
Winter can seem a bleak time as deciduous trees reveal their bare skeletons, but a quick study of the seemingly monotonous branches reveals many differences in shape, structure and colour.
Not only can a little knowledge help you identify which tree you’re looking at, but focusing on buds reminds us that it’s only a few weeks until spring will be with us again.
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