Ontario Trees & Shrubs website

Winter Tree Identification for Novices
Notes from an outing of the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists Club (Ontario)
February 3, 2001
Led by Fraser Gibson

   The following is taken from my notes made during a Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists "Winter Tree Identification for Novices" outing on Saturday February 3, 2001.  The outing lasted about 2 hours, and was led by Fraser Gibson in Laurel Creek Conservation Area in northern Waterloo.
I can not vouch for the complete 100% accuracy of my notes, and any errors in the following should not be attributed to Fraser!  However, I tried very hard to write down what he said, and to get clarification whenever necessary.

Evergreen Trees (Conifers)

-The first step in identification is to look at how the needles are gathered at the stem at the same place.  That is, how many needles are in one "bundle".
-Generally, there is a new "whorl" of branches each year.  This was you can tell the tree's age.  Count the number of levels of whorls and add a few for the first few years.
-evergreens grow from a "leader" - a branch at the top of the tree that grows straight upward on its own.  If this leader is damaged, another branch takes over and starts growing straight up in its place.




-one needle per "bundle"
-needles all around the stem
-needles are square or rounded

Norway Spruce
-droopy branches: all secondary (not the main) branches are on the bottom hanging down

White Spruce
-common here

Black Spruce
-shorter needles than White Spruce
-more of a skinny, slender tree than White Spruce
-grows in boggy areas




-10-20 needles in a bunch
-technically not an evergreen, as it loses its needles every fall.  More accurately, this whole group should be called "Coniferous", rather than "Evergreen"




-2-5 needles in a bunch

Austrian Pine
-2 needles in a bunch
-similar to Red Pine
-can bend needle right around finger without it breaking
-a more full and dense appearance compared to Red Pine

Red Pine
-2 needles in a bunch
-similar to Austrian Pine
-when bend needle around finger it tends to break
-whole tree appears more open
-lots have been planted in plantations

Scots Pine
-2 needles in a bunch, shorter (approx 2-2 inches)
-needles twisted together

Jack Pine
-2 needles in a bunch, shorter (approx 2-2 inches)
-needles spread apart in a "V" shape
-cones are jammed tight shut until the heat of a forest fire causes them to open and release the seeds

White Pine
-5 needles in a bunch: the trick to remember this is to remember that there are 5 letters in the word "white"
-the old big White Pines used to stick out above the deciduous forest canopy - often as much as 1/3 higher.
-a very open tree




-do not have needles like pines

Eastern White Cedar
-the only widespread native cedar in this area
-prefers wetter areas
-wood is rot-resistant: it splits into strips easily



Eastern Hemlock

-needles single, flat
-white stripe underneath
-likes good soil, a little damp
-wood resistant to rot
-bark used in tanning leather
-the young needles make a fine tea



Balsam Fir

-resembles Eastern Hemlock
-needles single, flat, but longer than Eastern Hemlock



Deciduous Trees

-The most important basic identification characteristic for these is to determine whether the buds, leaves, and branches are growing in an opposite or alternate configuration.
Generally speaking,
    Opposite:  Ashes, Maples, Dogwoods and Horsechestnut.
    Alternate: all others
A trick to aid in remembering this is the phrase "MAD HORSE": M=Maple, A=Ash, D=Dogwood, "Horse"=Horse Chestnut.

Trees that are opposite in growth will sometimes appear to be alternate due to injury.
But trees that are alternate in growth will never have an opposite growth pattern



Deciduous - Opposite


A shrub.  A common one is Red Osier Dogwood.




-ashes are more obviously opposite than the maples.
-they also have thicker and heavier twigs than the maples, like a pencil

White Ash
-the obvious opposite growth pattern and thick twigs is still obvious on larger older trees
-vertically ridged bark: with imagination one can see letters in the bark, such as
I, A, V, X, N, etc ("alphabet tree" - the "a" in "alphabet" corresponds to the "a" in "ash")
-grows in upland areas

Black Ash
-grows closer to water, in damper soils than White Ash
-bark is corkier




-maples have thinner, shorter and smaller twigs than the ashes

Sugar Maple
-on older trees the bark peels off in vertical strips that are attached on one side.
-when young the bark can be smooth

Black Maple
-resembles Sugar Maple
-used for maple syrup as well
-the bark looks like it's on tighter than Sugar Maple

Red Maple
-bark is in vertical strips that separate from tree at the top and bottom of the strip
-prefers to grow where its roots are flooded part of the time (but not all of the time)



Deciduous - Alternate


-big buds - "big and bubbly"
-older trees sometime have little holes in the bark that resemble sapsucker holes (although they're not so well lined up)



Hop Hornbeam

-also known as "Ironwood" because of the hardness of its wood
-vertically flaky bark, in loose strips, like "fried bacon"
-thin, small branches



Bitternut Hickory

-bark like smooth corduroy, not obviously ridged, but sort of mottled
-terminal bud at top of young plant is yellow, looks like 2 tightly furled miniature leaves 




-still has leaves in winter
-buds resemble little orange carrots stuck on (long and pointy)
-smooth grey bark, resembling an elephant's skin.  Bark remains smooth even on old trees.
-the seeds are triangular and are nutritious




-bark has criss-crossing vertical ridges
-nuts are pointed at ends, not rounded like Black Walnut



Black Cherry

-bark resembles burnt cornflakes: scaly.  The center of these flakes are smooth



Yellow Birch

-white birches are really white; yellow birch yellowish or goldish
-prefers damp or wet areas
-on large old trees the bark is really scaly, no longer papery
-the buds have an evergreen taste



Blue Beech
(Muscle Beech)

-very hard wood
-likes to have its feet wet
-a small tree, smaller than Hop Hornbeam (which is also known as "Ironwood")
-smooth bark, with wavering vertical lines and ridges



Black Locust

-pods hanging down
-thorns are slightly backward pointing




-smooth bark: grey with a tone of blue or green, rougher when older


Trembling Aspen
-buds close to stem


Balsam Poplar
-buds stick out a bit from stem