Identifying Trees in Winter

January 12, 2017

Yes, we know it’s chilly and wet outside, but that’s no reason to huddle indoors all day! Get started on those New Year’s resolutions and get your blood pumping with a hike through CVNP—there’s still plenty to see in winter.

For example, think it’s too difficult to learn your Ohio trees without their leaves? Fear no more: This week, we’ll teach you how to identify trees by their bark and other clues. Take our quiz to see where you stand, then check out our tips and put your skills to the test in the park this week.

Test Your Knowledge

Take a look at the images below, and see if you can guess what trees they are. We’ll go over the answers below—no peeking!

Tree #1:

Tree #2:

Tree #3:

Winter Identification Basics

When you start learning your trees, you usually start with the leaves: those bright bursts of color, full of sunshine and warmth. But here in the winter, there aren’t many green leaves, so you have to look a bit closer. Here are some of the most important clues to look for:

  • Twigs. The twigs of a tree are your first clue to identifying it. For example, do the twigs branch directly opposite each other, or do they alternate? Hint: The only tree species with twigs opposite each other are maple, ash, dogwood, and buckeye (remember “MAD BUCK”). You can also look for unusually-shaped leaf scars where the leaves used to be attached.
  • Buds. Buds indicate where flowers and eventually leaves will grow. The number and placement of the buds, as well as their texture, can help you identify certain species of trees.
  • Bark. The outer bark of each tree species has a unique texture, color, thickness, and pattern. While the bark of individual trees can vary by climate or growing conditions, it’s generally one of the best ways to identify a tree without its leaves. Learn to use all of your senses to examine the bark—even by smelling! Some tree species can be identified by gently scratching the bark and seeing what scent it gives off—but please don’t try to nibble on CVNP’s trees.

Native Trees to Spot in CVNP

Now that you’ve learned the basics of winter tree identification, take a look at some examples of native trees you might spot in the Cuyahoga Valley.

Yellow Birch: These trees have smooth, yellow-bronze bark that flakes off in horizontal strips. The bark also sometimes has small black marks, and the leaf scars and buds are alternate. Yellow birches also smell like wintergreen if you gently scrape the outer bark of their twigs.

Silver Maple: The buds are the easiest way to identify silver maples, because they’re usually shades of red or reddish-brown with a distinctive, pointy shape. Buds are opposite, and twigs have V-shaped leaf scars. The bark is gray with a scaly appearance in mature trees.

Musclewood: Also known as hornbeams or ironwoods, musclewood trees have greenish-gray bark with shallow fissures that make the trunks look a bit like flexed muscles—hence the name. Leaf scars and buds are alternate.

Ohio Buckeye: Look for the dark brown, dry, and scaly buds of the Ohio buckeye tree. They are arranged in pairs, opposite each other, with a larger, single bud at the ends of the twigs. You can also look for fallen buckeye nuts on the ground surrounding the tree for an easy hint.

Quiz Answers

Check your quiz answers here:

  1. Flowering Dogwood: The compressed, oval shape of this tree’s buds give it away. When mature, these trees are often wider than they are tall.
  2. Shagbark Hickory: No surprise about how this tree got its name—just check out that shaggy bark! Note that young shagbark hickories have much smoother bark.
  3. White Oak: Look for light gray bark that peels just a bit from the top, bottom, or sides of the trunk. About halfway up the tree, the bark tends to form overlapping scales.

How’d you do? Let us know or send photos of cool trees you find to

Want to join a park ranger on a hike? Check out the CVNP’s winter hiking schedule in the Winter Schedule of Events.