Leaves are one of the easiest way to identify trees. So what do you do in the winter, when only coniferous trees (evergreens) have their leaves and deciduous trees have none? One good first step in any bioregion is to try to figure out which trees are common in the area (often by looking in a book* or asking someone else). But what if you haven’t even gotten that far yet, as your focus was been primarily on trying to stay warm, and your nature observation had been limited to figuring out what that white stuff falling from the sky was? That was my experience when I moved to the Midwest after spending 7 years in the beautiful Sonoran Desert, until I trekked out to Beaver Creek Reserve in Fall Creek, Wisconsin for Jim Weishoff’s class on winter tree ID to get a little bit of guidance.
The first step in identifying deciduous trees is looking at the branches, of which there are two types–”opposite branching” (where branches are directly across from each other) and “alternate branching.” In this bioregion, there are only five types of trees with opposite branching. The term we learned was MAD BUCK–which stands for Maple, Ash, Dogwood (which aren’t common) BUCKthorn or BUCKeye. Maples can be further classified as red maples, silver maples and box elders. Ashes include white, black and green ashes. And, as mentioned, there are buckthorns and buckeyes.
Opposite branch trees can be further narrowed down by looking closely at the branches and twigs. Are the twigs slender or coarse? How thick is their diameter? What color are they? Are they fuzzy? Do they have thorns?
Looking at buds helps one narrow trees down further still. Are they fuzzy? Are they blunt and rounded or pointed? What color are they? Are there round, reddish buds with clusters of red flower buds, indicative of a red maple?
Bark characteristics, location and buds and leaf scars are incredibly helpful in differentiating between the three different ash trees. White ash trees, for instance, typically grow on dry sites and have soft, finely furrowed bark with a diamond-shaped pattern, whereas black ash trees grow in wetter areas and have a soft, corky bark that has no distinct pattern.
Plants with alternate branches are also identified by a variety of characteristics. Again, it is often easiest to narrow down the most common trees that you are likely to find, in this case aspens, oaks, birches and elms and some other varieties. Birch trees have a papery bark, which peels easily off the trunk. Aspens have light greenish-gray or greeenish-brown bark, which is somewhat smooth but not papery. Oaks are known for their strongly ridged bark (and presence of acorns in white and red oaks but not bur oaks). Thorny trees include hawthorns, buckthorns and locusts. Several varieties of elm trees are common in the area–American elms (with their lopsided buds), red or slippery elm (with its hairy buds), and Siberian elm, an exotic invasive with distinctive beady black buds.
So many trees are similar to others, especially when you aren’t aware of the characteristics or only look for one trait or at one tree. The old bark of an aspen can look like a cottonwood or an oak, and it is difficult to differentiate between bud clusters or depth of fissures with an untrained eye. As a kinesthetic learner, I was entirely frustrated when I first attempted to differentiate between types of plants until I started softly touching the leaves between my fingers. And the characteristics that will help one person really know a plant in their heart as well as memory, of course, vary between individuals. Identifying branches, buds and barks may be the most logical way to differentiate between plants, but it is scratching a twig a bit with my fingernail and then paying attention to the smell that often sparks my memory–the wintergreen scent of yellow birch, the bitter almond smell of cherry… Of course scratching every twig in search of the elusive scent will likely lead to disappointment, so having a rough idea of the characteristics you are looking for will help you forge your own path.
Knowing how to identify every plant you see is a badge of honor among some naturalists and herbalists, but I find comfort in the wisdom that there is no hurry.* This is true in general but is particularly true with trees, which won’t exactly run away from you. The sense of wonder in approaching a tree and trying to learn its name by what it looks like and smells like, what it’s bark feels like and where it hangs out will not diminish if, when the leaves come out, I discover I am wrong. As Shakespeare aptly put it, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
I find myself longing for the desert trees I loved–the desert willow, which the hummingbirds loved as well… the mesquite trees, which was a great source of dappled light (and yummy pods, to boot)… The palo verde with the light green bark and branches (branches that would fall off during storms as one of the plants’ adaptive features). And, of course, the saguaro cactus (technically a tree!), which take 75 years to grow a single arm and often provide homes for the Gila woodpeckers.
Still, there is a promise of spring and, although the days aren’t getting longer yet, I still find myself thinking about all the edible fruits coming in the spring–black cherries, juneberries, hackberries, nanny berries… I think about the elderberry shrubs growing in creeks here that I hope to use for medicine. I take studious notes on where these trees can be found so I can get a little bit closer to making this new bioregion feel like home.
*I have had bad luck with field guides in new locations, spending hours outside in the desert with a Newcomb’s wildflower guide that differentiates flowers by petals. I was staring what I later learned was lantana, and couldn’t even tell what would count as a petal, let alone how many there were
*Though attempting to use plants you cannot positively identify as food or medicine is, of course, inadvisable.
This piece was originally published in December 2009.