Winter Tree Identification

Branching—One of the ways to narrow down a tree’s identity in the winter is to look at the branching pattern. Twigs emerge from the branch and leaves emerge from the twigs in either an opposite or alternate pattern. If the twigs are opposite each other on each side of the branch, you have one of the MABDOG group: Maple, Ash, Buckeye or Dogwood. If the branches you see have a twig emerge and then you have to move down the branch a bit before you see another twig emerging on the other side of the branch, this alternate branching pattern indicates your tree is NOT in the MABDOG group. All the other genera of trees are in the alternate group, such as sycamore, oak, sweet gum or mulberry. This observation can be a bit tricky until you know one thing: many twigs and branches fall off as a tree grows. This self-pruning is natural, but can cause confusion for the newbie. The key to avoiding mistakes is to look all the way at the very tips of branches where the twigs are newest and least likely to have been lost. Look for “pitchforks” showing an opposite branching pattern. Don’t see any pitchforks? You probably have alternate branching.


Fruit—When attempting to identify trees in the winter, there are some trees that will make their identity obvious with persistent fruit. This doesn’t mean you can look for bananas and bright, colorful berries. It means some portion or indication of the fruit remains on the tree through all or part of the winter, dry and brown. Sometimes, these fruits can be seen from quite a distance so look up! Examples of these would be some members of the legume family such as the very large, squarish and leathery pods of Kentucky coffee trees and also black locust, which has very long and curling bean-like pods. Both are quite evident right now. Another tree that has persistent fruit is the tulip tree (often erroneously called tulip poplar or yellow poplar) which has the remains of its upright “tulips” still on the branches now. Do you see small, brown and hard fruits that look like berries suspended from little stems? Then your tree could be a variety of the callery pear, AKA Bradford pear.

Kentucky Coffee tree pods

Kentucky Coffee tree pods

Article by Bethany Dell'Agnello, FCFCDB

Nature note for 1/15/22