Ontario Trees & Shrubs website

Winter Tree and Shrub ID
Notes from an Ontario Trackers Group meeting hike
Dec 17, 2000

Led by Dave Locky

Notes proofread and corrected by Dave Locky on Jan 16/01


    This page has compiled from my notes made during a Winter Tree and Shrub Identification walk on Sunday December 17, 2000 at the Ontario Trackers Group December 2000 meeting.  The walk lasted about 3 hours, in the cold wind and blowing snow, and was led by Dave Locky.  Dave is the former president of the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists Club, a wetland ecologist, and a PhD student in biological sciences at the University of Alberta.
    I can not vouch for the complete 100% accuracy of my notes, and any errors in the following should not be attributed to Dave!  However, I tried very hard to accurately record what he said, and to get clarification whenever necessary.  Dave has proofread these notes, so they should be correct.

    View a report on this meeting on the Ontario Trackers Group website.



We first visited Waterloo Region's largest elm tree, a white elm 30m tall and 138cm in diameter.  This is a truly magnificent tree.


Trees in Ontario, overall:
  • Opposite twigs/branches - Ashes and Maples
  • Alternate Twigs and branches - all others (generally speaking)

A lot of these identification "rules" are just strong suggestions, and the most commonplace situation.  There are exceptions.



Ashes in general
- distinctly opposite branches, more obvious than the maples
- bark has a diamond-like pattern
- flexible in the wind due to strength and pliability of wood (e.g. tool handles and hockey sticks)

Black Ash
- grows in wet areas, it likes its feet wet
- lots of space between the terminal bud and the last lateral buds on twigs
- crumbly bark at young age

White Ash
- an upland species
- no space at all between the terminal bud and the last lateral bud on twigs

      With reference to the terminal bud arrangement,
      "Back is slack, White is tight"

Red (Green) Ash
- fuzzy twigs

Blue Ash
- has 4-sided twigs
- grows mainly in the very southernmost areas of Ontario

European Ash
- inky black buds
- an alien species - planted as an ornamental - doesn't appear to be invasive, though


Maples in general
- most are wind pollinated -- some are insect pollinated
- maples have opposite branches, but not as obvious as the ashes
- maples are not very flexible in the wind (Ashes usually have a long single trunk and are  therefore more flexible)
Soft Maples  (Red & Silver Maple)
   - the bark tends to peel off vertically (ie, from the top & bottom of the vertical strips)
   - huge flower buds, visible from afar
   - obvious opposite twigs
   - Red Maples are more common in Ontario than Silver Maples
Hard Maples  (Sugar & Black Maple)
   - the bark tends to peel off horizontally (ie, from the sides of the vertical strips)
   - bark tends to be quite variable, sometime smooth, other times rough

Norway Maple
- confused with Sugar Maple
- has huge keys, at almost a 180-degree angle - no other maple has such big keys, very prolific
- large buds (huge)
- a variety of this tree can have red leaves

Sugar Maple
- confused with Norway Maple
- has tiny buds
- the keys hang down
- bark lifts off from the sides (vertical strips)
- leaf has 5 distinct lobes

Black Maple
- grows in wetter areas
- looks wilted
- grayer twigs than Norway and Sugar Maples
- leaf has 3 distinct lobes

Maples hybridize readily, and cause confusion between species.

Silver Maple
distinctive leaves
- there is some smell to a broken twig

Red Maple
- red buds
- there is no smell to a broken twig

Manitoba Maple
- Male & Female trees
- glacous or whitish-waxy bloom or coating on purple twigs



Common (European) Buckthorn
- has a terminal spine - a straight thorn between buds at terminal end of twig, sticking out at the end of the branch.

Glossy Buckthorn
- this species is rare in Ontario, found mainly in the Guelph and Kitchener areas.



White Elm
- the huge one we visited (above)
- branches out lower

Rock (or Red or Slippery) Elm
- branches out higher, about 2/3 of the height of the tree
- rarer
- resembles oak tree, it doesn't look like the classic elm shape


Dutch Elm disease - this is a fungus that clogs the tree's pores, prevents water from rising up inside the tree.  Transferred by bark beetles



- many shoots come up if cut down
- bulbous red shiny buds - you can eat the buds
- very chunky trunks
- pollinated at night by moths, eben though the flowers attract bees, they cannot get their mouthparts into the flower.  Only moths have the mouthparts to get inside.
- very soft bark - you can shove a pencil into it
- chocolate coloured just under bark
- wood is very soft, very good for wood carving


White Pine
- 5 needles in a bunch, shorter
- cone is long and skinny - the only one in Ontario like this

Red Pine
- 2 needles in a bunch, long
- more happy in the north, although they will grow in the south
- needles are much longer than white pine needles
- needles break easily (test by wrapping around your finger)
- cone is more compact and round (compared to white pine)

Austrian Pine or Black Pine
- 2 needles, long
- needles twisted around finger will not break - as opposed to red pine (above)

Pitch Pine
- 3 needles in a bunch, shorter
- only in eastern Ontario

Scots Pine
- needles short
- golden brown top
- alien species
- needles almost always curl around each other
- compare Jack and Scots pine

Jack Pine
- needles short
- needles diverge from each other
- compare Jack and Scots pine

Swiss Mugho Pine
- alien species
- grows horizontally



Staghorn Sumac
- are Male & Female trees
- the female trees have the berries in the familiar "staghorn" shape
- male trees have the branches that look like staghorns in velvet

Poison Sumac
- leaves affect us like poison ivy does
- rare in Ontario
- grows in wet areas



Cherry trees in general
- All cherries have a sweet almond smell when you scratch the twig
- Cherries are susceptible to a black fungus, that grows in bulbous growths around the branches.  This will eventually kill them.  The fungus may be native to North America.

Red (Pin) Cherry
- the only cherry that has a clustered terminal bud, like an oak (in general - choke and black cherry can have terminal cluster as well)

Choke Cherry
- light leading edge on the bud scales

Black Cherry
- dark leading edge on the bud scales
- the only one that is a full size tree although some choke cherry plants can reach tree size
- only in southern Ontario
- bark resembles burnt corn flakes ("bc" = black cherry; "bc" = "burnt cornflakes")
- bark gets more like this as tree gets older (but is smooth when young)
- heartwood is dark (from the tannin that it concentrates from the soil)

Pin Cherry
- orange lenticils - these are spots on the trunk through which the tree breathes



- a shrub with lots of thorns
- this is not actually an ash at all
- "toothache tree" - parts of this tree are a painkiller
- there is a caterpillar that feeds solely on this tree
- thorns opposite



American Beech
- long buds
- has a "pagoda tree" look
- retains leaves in the winter, especially younger trees.
- very smooth bark



Oaks in general
2 Groups:
White Oaks
   - more flakey bark
   - rounded leaves
   - rounded buds
Black (Red) Oaks
   - rigid bark
   - sharp pointed leaves
   - sharp ended buds

Black Oak
- parallel lobes on leaves
- fuzzier buds

Red Oak
- lobes not parallel
- buds not fuzzy
- strong bark

Bur Oak
- corky ridges on twigs & branches (cork comes from oak bark in the Mediterranean)
- strong hair on the tip of the twig



- distinctive buds
- walnuts "poison" the ground by sending out some sort of chemical from the roots - this prevents many other plants from growing under them

Black Walnut
- smooth buds
- really round nuts

- little mustache over the bud
- nuts are more oblong



Carolina Poplar
- cross between Lombardy Poplar and Eastern Cottonwood
- branches are at a 45-degree angle

Large-Toothed Aspen
- branches are not at 45-degrees
- orange cast on green bark
- distinctive large teeth on leaves

Trembling Aspen
- corky black splitting bark

Balsam Poplar
- big sticky buds - pointed, balsamy smell, pungent
- diamond-shaped leaf



Gray Birch
- upside-down triangles under branches

Yellow Birch
- grows in damp areas - likes its feet wet
- twigs have a wintergreen flavour when chewed
- has plump catkins
- golden bark

White Birch
- smaller catkins, that hang down



Highbush Cranberry & European Cranberry
- very similar
- berries from both are edible


- very hard wood
- bark in long vertical flakes



- white lines underneath needles - these are stomata - tree breathes through these
- purple edges to cut bark
- wood is virtually impermeable to insects



- resembles Eastern Hemlock, but bark is different - Balsam Fir has sap bubbles
- needles are longer than Eastern Hemlock



- There are about 100 species of these in Canada, very difficult to tell apart


Bitternut Hickory
- unique bright sulfur coloured buds, long & pointed


Shagbark Hickory
- long flakes of bark, very shaggy


Pignut Hickory



- veins on leaves are almost always parallel to the central vein
- Q: How do you tell that it's a dogwood?  A: By its bark.  :)

Red Osier Dogwood
- bark very red



- a cut grape vine will supply a lot of drinkable sap that is like water (be careful not to confuse it with Canada Moonseed)

Wild Grape, Summer Grape, Fox Grape



Red Elderberry
- towering flower and berry cluster
- big big buds
- dark (reddish) pith
- not edible


Black Elderberry
- flat-topped flower and berry cluster
- tiny tiny buds, almost invisible
- edible