Adventures in winter deciduous tree identification

Adventures in Winter Deciduous Tree Identification


Sapsucker Forest…my study area

 I’d like to share some of the mishaps and rewards of winter deciduous-tree identification. I headed up the hill into my study area, which I call “Sapsucker Forest,” a steep mixed harwood forest that was logged some years ago. Forest Trees of Maine field guide, cell phone camera, and pen and notebook in my pack,  I envisioned nailing every tree in which I came in contact. The first obstacle was freezing temperatures and high winds, which made taking off my gloves to record or photograph difficult. The next problem was recognizing familiar bark of a large tree but not being able to access any of the high branches to examine buds and twigs. Ignorance then became the obstacle as I realized I didn’t understand all the questions in the key and my magnifier hadn’t come in the mail yet, so determining things like “smooth or hairy bud sheath?” became a shot in the dark. A final problem was the sheer distractibility of being in the woods; I had started to key out a beech, which I know well when I was called away by a “cheep, cheep” that I’d not heard before. Thinking I had come upon some rare bird, I tracked a Tufted Titmouse who played hide and seek with me for a while till he became weary of the game and flew off. 

Here is the Beech and how I determined its genus:


Marcescence is the wonderful word that describes trees that hang onto their leaves into the winter. I use the mnemonic “marsupial and incessant” to remember. Beech are easy to find in the winter woods with their orange marcescent leaves, probably a holdover from earlier times when beeches (and oaks) grew in warmer climes and didn’t shed their leaves in winter. All three trees that I keyed out on this excursion (yellow birch, beech, black willow) started the same way in the key: deciduous, spur branches longer than ¼ inch, fruit not a cone, leaf scars alternate, twigs unarmed, buds visible, leaf scars less than ¾ around twig, pith solid, buds covered by one or more scales, then I came to the end of the line for my willow with buds covered with a single cap-like scale. My beech continued on with buds covered with two or more scales, more than one bundle scar, catkins absent, terminal bud present, leaf scars broader, pith rounded, buds long and narrow. Finally, the bark was smooth and grey on the young tree; older trees are always warty from beech bark disease.


Here is the black willow I keyed out above.


The bark is deeply fissured, shaggy. It is growing along a creek and every bit of 65 feet high, the maximum height of these weak trees. Fortunately, I was able to harvest some branches from the ground that had blown off the tree but still had buds.


Finally, I keyed out my favorite, beautiful tree, yellow birch. She is dressed in yellow ribbons and she tastes good too. When in doubt about yellow birch, just chew on a twig and imagine drinking birch beer or chewing wintergreen gum. It can help get you through a thirsty or hungry time in the woods. I keyed her just like the other two up until: two or more scales, more than one bundle scar, catkins present, buds sessile, bud scales without groves, bark peeling or blocky…birch. Finally, wintergreen taste, long pointy buds, hairy stems, bumpy, many side shoots, greenish-yellow twig bark, lots of ventricles, and growing along a cool creek distinguished this birch from the others.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s