Winter Tree Identification

Learn how all your senses are needed when identifying trees in the winter months.

Regardless of the season or state of the tree’s life, basic tree identification usually begins with the easiest question to answer. Is it deciduous or a conifer? Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall and grow them back every spring. Conifers, also known as evergreens, maintain their leaves and colors all year round. In the winter, it is obvious which trees are evergreens and which ones are not.

Leaves are by far the easiest way to identify trees. Each category and species of tree has a unique shape and look to their leaves, making it a simple way to identify trees. When using the leaves to identify trees, you have to consider their arrangement on the stem, whether they are simple (a single leaf) or compound (several leaves attached to a midrib) and the overall shape of the leaf. Shape characteristics include: the edges (or margins) and if they are smooth, toothed, or lobed; the length of stems, or petioles; the shape of the tips and bases of leaf; and the surface details - all important in distinguishing a leaf from one species to another.

However, when deciduous trees lose their leaves as winter draws near, this way is no longer an option. When it comes to winter tree identification, knowing the placement of buds, the texture of the bark, and the shape and size of the twigs are the best ways to identify the tree. Your other senses – smell, touch and even taste – may also come into play.

Identifying Deciduous Trees in the Winter

Tree identification always requires a little detective work. In the winter months, identifying trees takes a bit more scrutinizing. Since there are no leaves – on the deciduous trees, that is - it’s best to study the twigs, buds, and bark. The following is what to look for:

•   Twig markings, such as the bundle and leaf scars, offers information as to how leaves are arranged when present. They can also tell you where the buds grow. Virginia Tech has a great Twig Key that takes you step-by-step in determining what tree your twig came from.

•   The shape, size, color, and texture of the buds vary from species to species. Buds bloom into flowers and leaves. Flower buds form in various places and are often much larger than leaf buds. Leaves form as either terminal buds –found at the ends of twigs, or lateral buds - along the sides of twigs. Most buds have protective scales that enclose the leaf tissue. If no scales exist, the buds are considered “naked.” The number and arrangement of the buds on the twigs are also important.

•   Look to the branches! All trees have either opposite or alternate branching. Alternate branching means that the twigs and buds grow off a main branch one at a time. Opposite branching is when twigs and buds grow off a main branch in pairs. Ashes, dogwoods, and maples are examples of opposite branching. Examples of alternate branching would be birches, sycamores, and tulip trees.

•   Those who are more experienced when it comes to identifying trees may find the answers in the bark. While the bark of a tree changes as it matures and varies by geographical region or growing conditions, it can be an easy way to determine the species of tree. All species’ bark has a difference in color, thickness, texture, and pattern. Another way to identify bark types is by feeling the bark with your hands. This will help you remember the bark more quickly than remembering its visual pattern. Feel for hardness and scaliness. Some species tend to peel their bark. For example, shagbark hickory peels vertically in large, thick, curving strips while the paper birch peels horizontally in large strips.

Scratch & sniff! The smell of the inner bark can also help you decipher the tree’s identity. In fact, the identity of certain trees can be found just by scratching off a bit of the outer bark and giving it a whiff. For example, the yellow birch smells like wintergreen which is useful when determining what kind of birch you are identifying. Other trees with distinctive scents are Sassafras, which smells spicy and can be quite strong, and wild cherry has a bitter almond scent.

Before setting out in the cold, make sure to bring along a good field guide to assist you in figuring out what is what. There are several guides out there to choose from whether you are a beginner or an experienced forester. Marion T. Jackson’s 101 Trees of Indiana is a great guide as is Trees of Indiana Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.

Conifer Tree Identification

Conifer trees are easy to spot in the winter months. Yet, the similar green needles or scale-like leaves found on the various species can be tricky to identify. One way is to feel its foliage; are the needles thin and soft or are they thick and sharp? Noticing how they are bundled is a good clue as well. Cones are another indication. If present, the shape and size will help distinguish from one species to another.

Conifer trees in Indiana include bald cypress, cedar, Douglas-fir, fir, hemlock, juniper, larch, pine, and spruce.

Understanding the Twig

In the winter, the twigs of a tree can hold a lot of answers when identifying trees. Twigs are arranged the same way the leaves are arranged - either opposite from each other or alternately. 

•   Terminal buds - buds that are found on the tips of a stem or branch.

•   Lateral buds - buds that grow on the sides of a twig or branch.

•   Bud scales - small leaves that grow around outside of the bud. If there are no scales, the bud is considered “naked.”

•   Bud scale scars - tiny dots that can be seen inside the leaf scar after the leaf falls.

•   Leaf scars - scars left on the twig after the leaf falls.

•   Lenticels - small, lighter colored spots on the back of the twig. They are tiny openings the allow air in & gas out.

•   Nodes - leaf bearing joints of the twig

•   Pith - the spongy center tissue of the twig.

•   Vascular bundle scars - where the xylem entered the leaf and phloem entered the twig.

Get out there and try it!

Below you will find some of our preserves that are perfect for putting your winter tree identification skills to the test! Visit our winter hiking page for additional preserves to hike in the winter and tips for braving the cold.

Big Walnut - This preserve boasts the top-ranked trail in Indiana on, and you don’t have to wait until summertime to find out why. Its large forest area provides perfect habitat for all kinds of plants and animals. The trail is well-maintained so you don’t need to worry about getting lost in the 2,700-acre area.We can’t wait to see you out there!

Hitz-Rhodehamel Woods - Imagine experiencing the beauty of Brown County without the crowd. When you visit our Hitz-Rhodehamel Woods preserve, you can enjoy all the things this Southern Indiana woodland has to offer—oaks, pines, eagles, ospreys—peacefully and quietly. 

Portland Arch - Portland Arch is the perfect preserve for winter hiking because it offers a rich variety of landscapes—forests, cliffs, open prairies, and spring-seep wetlands.  You won’t want to miss how beautiful all of these look under a layer of snow and ice. Bring a camera, some snacks, and a few layers. We think you’ll want to stay a while.

Pine Hills - This preserve was our chapter’s very first project. From the start, we realized just how special it is. As you explore the preserve and all of its woodland glory, be sure to watch your step! The overhanging cliffs and steep backbones are both exquisitely beautiful and potentially dangerous. Come see for yourself why we made this tract of land our first priority over 40 years ago.

Shooting Star Cliffs - Recognized as “the Hoosier Appalachia,” this preserve features a rugged landscape that mesmerizes its visitors. Identifying the various types of flora found in the preserve will surely occupy your mind as you wind through the trail, passing sandstone rock shelters and intermittent creeks. Don’t forget to grab a hiking stick- this hilly preserve is not the average flat terrain of Indiana!