Observations about tree identification

Elder - Sambucus Nigra Buds

Just when I thought I knew how to identify a few trees in the Oxford woods, Instructor Jay goes and moves the goal posts!

I was fortunate enough to join the Woodland Wayers on their Axe Workshop and Tree Identification weekend in December, and once again the depth and breadth of knowledge the Woodland Ways’ instructors has left me in awe. (And a little overwhelmed, again).

There are a lot of Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) trees in the Oxford woods, and after 3+ years of spending time there I thought I knew how to identify a Sycamore. Or to be more precise, I would say to myself, that’s a Sycamore, or that’s Hazel, that’s Oak etc. My level of tree identification had got to (bear with me)… knowing what I knew, but not knowing why I knew it.

It was a bit like Stinging Nettles or Dandelions, we’ve just known from kids what they look like and accept that knowledge.

Instead of asking “what tree is this?” A better question is “what makes this tree, this tree, and no other tree?” And that question in turn leads to loads of questions.

On the Friday evening, in the dark, Jay took us for a walk to identify trees. Taking away the sense of sight, gone was the “I know that tree, it’s a…” because I realised, I relied solely on my sense of sight to draw upon my limited knowledge of the species to make the identification. The whole identifying trees at night is for another blog. What is important now is that not seeing the tree, opened my eyes to what real tree identification is about. There I was feeling the buds of the Sycamore and knowing for the first time the bud has four sharp edges, as if it is a cube, with a pointed tip and they are in opposite pairs along the twig.

The instructors will often bring a selection of their library of books to share titles and authors that are good for not only identification of trees, but also the past and present uses, folklore etc. I don’t have all the books yet, and if I did, I can’t carry them all around with me while I am out with dog and come across a tree I want to identify. What I can do, is learn the questions I need to be asking myself in order to then come home and identify the tree.

So, the end result of writing this blog, is my starting point to really get to grips with identifying trees by creating a checklist of questions. I am more than happy to share this with you, in the hope that you will take it and make it your own. My knowledge is still limited, add the questions you want answered.

To test the check list, I went to a wood close to where I live and I was pleasantly surprised to actually “know” most of the trees, based upon my current knowledge. But that didn’t answer “what makes this tree, this tree, and no other tree?” A quick use of the check sheet:

On returning home, I used the “British Trees” app from the Woodland Trust to help with the identification. This app uses the features of the foliage, buds, flowers, fruit, bark and twigs and a series of questions to narrow down the tree options. Being winter, the buds seemed the obvious choice as a starting point.

Elder - Sambucus Nigra Buds
Elder – Sambucus Nigra Buds
  • Question 1 – Bud Arrangement, Opposite or Alternate / Spiral = Opposite
  • Question 2 – Bud colour = Red
  • Question 3 – Bud Appearance, Hairs/scales, Smooth or Ragged = Ragged
  • Question 4 – Bud Shape, Ovoid or Pointed = Ovoid

The App had one possibility, Elder. Fortunately, I did “know” what the tree was. I have now learned that red, ovoid, ragged buds arranged in opposite pairs means it is an Elder!

Putting my observations and the App to the test further…

Foliage – there was literal only one leaf on the tree, but it was still green. Going through the app didn’t bring me to the Elder conclusion. Why? Because, that leaf I found was in fact only part of the pinnate leaf structure. From this I have learnt it is very important to not rely upon just one feature for the identification.

  • Twigs – these questions lead to 33 possibilities, including Elder
  • Bark – these questions lead to 37 possibilities, including Elder
  • Flowers – not present
  • Fruit – not present

The final stage of my learning process is to research as much as I can about the tree and make copious notes. These are for my own personal use and cannot be shared as much is simple copy and pasted plagiarism, which I then edit into a standard format, similar to the files shared, which I find useful to aid my learning. And of course, none of them are ever finished, because there is always more to learn. Which makes this subject so rewarding, yet ever so frustrating at the same time.

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