ABC's of Tree I.D. in Winter

Winter Tree Identification Urban Nature Wild Here

When I went back to school, as part of our ecology education, we had to learn identification skills of different types of flora and fauna.  This included tracking, bird songs, trees, lichen, vascular plants and other fascinating species.  (This was one of the reasons I wanted to specifically take ecology and not just an environment focused program.   I wanted to be outdoors learning about the species around me.)  I had no idea however that we would be learning about tree identification skills in the middle of winter.  This seemed so counter-intuitive to me - without the leaves, how could you i.d. the tree?

But this class really turned me around in terms of what winter had to offer and how much detail there is out there even in these quiet, seemingly sleepy months.  We learned that tree i.d. could actually be easier in the winter, when the showier, green canopy was absent and when we could focus on very specific things.  There are clues everywhere!  What we learned was to approach it with a systematic method - using an acronym as an mnemonic:

Arrangement (this refers to how the leaves and branches are arranged).  First of all note whether the tree is a conifer (evergreen) or deciduous (broadleaved) and then look at the branching pattern which follows the same pattern as leafs, leaf buds and leaf scars.  They can be opposite (side-by-side), alternate (staggered on the branch) or whorled (three or more circling the branch in the same spot).  (More Here)
Buds/Bark (winter leaf buds and the colour and patterns of bark are another determining factor). Leaf buds have many specific characteristics from shape, colour, length, texture and bark can have the same - different textures, colours, lines and patterns to help you identify the tree.  However - young trees and mature trees can have very different bark - keep this in mind! 
Characteristics (other details such as: leaves on or off, shape of tree, branch characteristics, seeds (keys, catkins, etc), resins, lenticles, etc.) So many other details can help you determine the species of tree.  Although I mentioned that leaves aren't needed, if there are leaves on the ground, they can be used as clues.  The location of the tree can also be a clue if you know what types of trees grow in swamps or ones that like lowlands (if you are in a natural area).  The overall tree can take on a distinct shape (get to know the different tree tops of various conifer species), branch details (thick, thin, messy or very orderly), along with seeds that linger in the winter.  Get to know some unique characteristics that can help narrow down the species!
Nature Appreciation with Winter Identification for Trees

-- Deciduous Tree in Winter --

General Identification Tips:

Don't take on too much all at once.  Trying to learn too many tree characteristics at once can be overwhelming.  Give yourself 10 or 20 of them and revisit them over a few weeks.  When we were at school our list was about 40 different species no matter what we were studying (trees, plants, etc.).

Check out your local Arboretum or a Historic Site. See what parks in your city have identification signs to help you learn your trees.  In Ottawa we are lucky to have the Arboretum and also the Governor General's estate that provides signs to help identify trees.  There are also signs at the National Cemetery (Beechwood) and at the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority Office Building in Manotick.  Check to see if similar organizations offer tree signage in your location.  These planted trees also offer you the opportunity to learn a greater mix of trees in close proximity.

Learn families first.  Some families of trees have similar characteristics, so you can first use some of the family characteristics to help determine what the plant is or is not.  For example Pine (Pinus) trees - all have clustered needles or Maple (Acer) - all have opposite branching.  It's a great way to narrow down options.  However this needs to be matched up with other characteristics to make any final confirmation as there are anomalies in plant families.  A good tip but don't rely on it as an absolute!

Winter Tree Identification with ABC Tree Buds
-- Tree leaf buds in late winter --

Learn Latin names.  There are clues in Latin names (Rubrum = Red, Grandidentata = Big Tooth and refers to the "toothed edge" of a leaf) that can help with identification.  Also by using the Latin name you will start understanding how families relate.  Common names are not always the same when you are in a different region - use a Latin name to confirm that the species you know as "Cottonwood" is the same species in another area of the country.

Note when characteristics are similar.  When there are two trees that are stumping you (you confuse them quite a bit) take a bit more time to learn about them in detail so that you can see what similarities are mixing you up.  This type of detailed study will pay dividends as you continue to learn more species and can more easily detect "tells" that help with classification.

Keep up with the studies over a period of time.  Make this new effort of tree identification a regular activity for a handful of weeks or a few months.  Spend some time reading tree species books when you are not out in the field.  Let it all sink in and keep it up.  It's not by going out once that you will learn to be able to identify tree species (or any species) over the long period.

Go out with local naturalists.  Your local naturalist club will organize various outings and even if "Trees" are not the specific topic, you can probably get some tips.  Check with your local college or university to see if they offer any public classes or help with some tree planting.  Any opportunities you get to be out with others in the field will provide you with a chance to learn more!

Refresh your I.D. skills from time to time.  Even knowledgeable naturalists have to do some refreshment of species once a year or so if they haven't been using their identification skills.  It's natural to get rusty if you aren't seeing the species and using your skills regularly.  Have fun with opportunities to refresh and get out there and check out your favourite spot that offers a variety of trees to study.

Green Cedar Trees in Winter Urban Nature Wild Here
-- Coniferous (Evergreen) Tree in Winter --

**This is just an introduction on how to start working on your identification skills.

Seek out local learning opportunities that will help you with identifying specific trees in your area!  As mentioned above, see where you might find local parks that have tree labels available.  Check with local Field Naturalist clubs, Hiking clubs and other Outdoor Clubs that offer opportunities to get outside.  Ask local colleges and universities to see if they have any public classes and check with local tree organizations and associations to see what they offer.

For those in Ontario - stay tuned for a post on some suggestion of species to start with.

Enjoy Your Urban Wilding!

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