If you were to close your eyes and picture a deciduous tree, chances are you would see it in full leaf. In our mind, we tend to remember trees in their summer clothing. It’s what gives deciduous trees their character, fleshes them out and helps us to identify them easily by species. But now that “all the leaves are down and the sky is grey”, how can you tell the trees apart? In the absence of leaves, flowers and fruit, what’s there to go on? Plenty, actually. You can zero in on tree species by considering such features as size, form, habitat, and range, but especially the 3 Bs – branching, bark, and buds.
When you look at a bare tree, you’ll find the twigs branch off of one another in decreasing size. Notice the placement of twigs relative to one another on the main branches. Twigs will be either in opposing pairs (two twigs opposite each other forming a “V” ) or alternating (a twig on one side of a branch, then a gap, then a twig on the other side). When the branching is opposite, think of the acronym “MAD Horse” for Maple, Ash, Dogwood, and Horsechestnut. If the branching is alternate, then think oak, hickory, birch, and everything else. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. The Alternate-leaved Dogwood breaks rank with its opposite-branching siblings.
Another key identifying feature, and perhaps the easiest to see, is bark. Bark can vary widely by texture and colour between the species. A mature white birch is easily recognized by its papery, easy-to-peel bark. Beech is known for its extremely smooth grey bark reminiscent of an elephant’s hide. The mature bark of a black cherry separates into dark squares, which look like burnt cornflakes. My personal favourite in the best bark category is the Blue-Beech. This understory tree (which is actually a type of birch) has smooth bark with sinuous ridges, earning it the nick-name “musclewood”.
The third B stands for buds. The buds house the upcoming spring’s new growth and are usually covered by scales. The buds of a balsam poplar tend to be large and sticky, with a characteristic sweet fragrance. The buds of a basswood are plump and reddish with two or three scales. They are also edible and taste something like green beans. The flower buds of the red and silver maples are noticeable over the winter, even from a distance. They appear in large clusters on the tips of the twigs, awaiting the spring.
The winter trees are still recognizable individuals even when stripped of their summer outfits. It just requires more detective work.