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Southwest Michigan is blessed to have many different kinds of tree species. With maples, oaks, and beeches, and many more - natural areas are teeming with a wide variety of beautiful trees. Identifying trees in the warmer months can be fairly easy, especially with distinctive leaf shapes of the maples and oaks, but how can you know for sure what tree species you are looking at in the winter? Why is it important to know?

Why is it important to identify trees correctly?

There are many reasons people need to identify trees. Knowing which trees are growing on a site can tell us about the soil, climate and other environmental conditions. Some animals depend on particular trees for food or shelter. Other plants in a forest may grow best in the shade of certain types of trees. Sometimes trees from other areas become invasive and need to be removed. If
you are choosing a tree to plant in your yard, you want to know which trees might grow best there, and what their needs are, so that you can take the best care of your tree. In all of these examples, being able to identify trees correctly is very important. 

How to Identify Tree in Winter

Leaves can make tree identification much easier, but it is also a fun challenge to correctly identify trees in the winter — and it is often not really all that hard. Trees have lots of clues to their identity even without their leaves... the key is to know what to look for. Below are some basic identifiers trees have to help you determine which types of tree species you are looking at. 

Identification from Twigs and Buds

Identification of Twigs-

Most tree twig keys start with the arrangement of leaf, limb, and buds. It is the primary first separation of the most common tree species. You can eliminate major blocks of trees just by observing its leaf and twig arrangement.

Alternate leaf attachments have one unique leaf at each leaf node and typically alternate direction along the stem. Opposite leaf attachments pair leaves at each node. Whorled leaf attachment is where three or more leaves attach at each point or node on the stem.

The opposites are maple, ash, dogwood, paulownia buckeye and boxelder. The alternates are oak, hickory, yellow poplar, birch, beech, elm, cherry, sweetgum, and sycamore.

Identification of buds-

The Terminal Bud: There is a bud on the tip of every twig where growth occurs. It is often larger than the lateral buds and some can be absent. Trees easily identified by their terminal buds are poplar (mitten or duckbilled shaped), dogwood (clove-shaped flower bud) and oak (clustered bud ends).

The Lateral Buds: These are buds on each side of the branch. Trees easily identified by a lateral bud include beech (long, pointed scaled bud) and elm (buds off center over leaf scar).

The Leaf Scar: This is a scar of leaf attachment. When the leaf drops, a scar is left just under the bud and it can be unique. The trees easily identified by its leaf scars are hickory (3-lobed), ash (shield-shaped)and dogwood (leaf scar encircles the twig).

Identification from Bark

The bark is a tree's natural armor and protection from external threats. Bark also has several physical functions; one is ridding the tree of wastes by absorbing and locking them into its dead cells and resins. Bark textures are relatively uniform by tree species and make a great visual marker for broad tree identification. Textures are divided into at least 18 types, from smooth (beech) to spiny (locust). For this reason, only the broadest classifications can be determined using bark alone. You can very readily distinguish between an oak and a pine by looking at the bark. The hard part is separating the various oak or pine species without looking at additional tree features.