Tree identification can be a tricky trade. Here is a short guide to making the learning of our woody friends an enjoyable and methodical adventure through the forest of knowledge.
It would take a small book or at the very least a large leaflet to comprehensively list the identification features of all 33 native British tree species (29 of which are broadleaves), and so instead of attempting such a futile feat I will instead provide a quick, and hopefully useful guide, to getting started in the world of trees.
Firstly, it has been my experience that many people do not know their trees. It’s an ‘elephant in the living room’ that lots of naturalists are content to quietly ignore, but I have often met and worked with ecologists that can name all 18 UK species of Bat but can’t name more than a handful of tree species.
I have heard accounts of older naturalists being ‘appalled’ at the realisation that many young people lack in this area, however I find that an unhelpful and condescending attitude. Its okay, we are all each to our own, and a frothing-at-the-binoculars birder or sweep net-happy invertebrate lover may not be so naturally inclined to learning tree species as an arbor-maniac such as myself. But in the words of the great soon-to-be former president Barrack Obama, to be the best conservationists we can be, we must first “Eat our peas”, and delve into the areas of the natural world we may not find so appealing.
So where to start?
We estimate there are between 40 – 55,000 trees species in the tropics, 1000 species in North America, 500 in Europe, and about 100,000 worldwide in total. So stay focused, where are you planning on taking your career? Learn what you need, like a tool box. If you’re an anglophile then lucky you, as I said earlier there are only 33 native species plus a bunch of imported species kicking around the place. 33? Easy!
- Count down
Just like learning to cook, start with the easiest and most appealing dish. The most numerous broadleaved tree species in Britain are Oaks (making up 9% of the tree species pie). These are the paternal symbol of our island, and the species I would expect most people to know – their striking personalities are in their unmistakable shape, sprawling twisting branches and rough, furrowed bark that plays host to over 450 species of invertebrate and a mass of moss and lichen species. There are two key native species, Pedunculate or ‘English’ Oak (Quercus robur) and Sessile Oak (Quercus petrea), the key to knowing the difference is the leaf symmetry and that Peduculate Oaks have stalked acorns (Peduncle meaning stalk). Next is Silver Birch (Betula pendula) weighing in at 7%, with its striking white, striped bark and arrow-like, ‘pendulous’ leaves. And third, Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), 5%, this beautiful tree helped give birth to our islands first civilisations – an elegant coppicing beauty famed for its excellent firewood and timber properties, it has fissured bark and oval compound leaves – black opposite buds in winter.
- Build a profile
My strategy is to compartmentalise each species into profiles, the more I learn about that species, the more of a mental picture I build and the easier it is to remember. Knowing for example that Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) was used for making cogs due to it’s incredibly hard timber, reinforces my ability to recognise it, almost like knowing a person. Learning Latinate binomial names really helps me, as the Latin words can be directly descriptive of the tree – but don’t pressure yourself, I know rangers with great careers in the National Trust, for example, who refuse to learn Latinate nomenclature.
- The ‘Jizz’
Birders will know this phenomenon, it’s the feeling of just ‘knowing’ what a tree species is without breaking it down into it’s constituent I.D. features. It’s like seeing the face of your mother in a crowded supermarket freezer isle and just knowing, that’s mum. The only way you can achieve this is to just get out there and get stuck in. Reinforce your memory every time you see a tree you recognise and eventually they will become friendly faces. I cannot stress enough how much a walk or car journey can be enriched by learning your trees, at 3 billion strong they are the UKs most visibly recognisable landscape feature.
- Conquering conifers
Learn broadleaves first. Most conifers in the UK are imported timber trees from North America and are much harder to identify than our charismatic natives. Do not however put them off, the most numerous tree in Britain is the Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) making up 38% of all our woodland cover. Get touchy-feely for these as Sitka’s have very rigid, sharp needles. Conifers are more difficult characters, but don’t panic, follow the earlier steps and start with the easy ones, Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) is my favourite, with its unique and comical ‘floppy top’, a drooping apical tip. Or Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), many pine species have two-needle clusters, but the scots have a trick – tear apart the needle and look for small white hairs, are they there? Then it’s the hairy highlander himself!
Learning tree species can be tough and tedious but my advice is to be methodical and make it fun. There are so many ways to make tree identification an adventure, learn which are best for climbing or which leaves can be eaten in sandwiches in spring! (It’s Lime leaves). But without a doubt the most effective way to learn is to pick a species a day, go and find it and just have an experience with it, build a memory that will last forever and you will never forget it.
Good luck explorer.
The Woodland Trust have some great online resources including a smart phone app to help get started with identifying UK tree species: