tree bark close up detail

Barking up the wrong tree?

Winter is the best time to learn your trees. If you can identify them now then you’re onto a winner in the summer.

Why do I need to know about trees?

Trees are our biggest ally in our survival. They can provide us with rope, glue, food, soap, medicine, building materials and fire to name a few and without them life would be very difficult. All of these amazing uses can only be harnessed if we know where to look, and this is only possible if we know who is who.

When I teach tree ID, I focus on 5 areas: leaves, bark, growth pattern, buds and habitat.

1. Leaves

These are the bits most people focus on, however, for a large portion of the year the trees have dropped them. I will look at the ground in the winter to aid in identification, however, this is less than reliable.
We can break leaves down into three sections (actually we can go a lot further but I won’t bore you);

Simple leaves

Beech, Lime, Hazel, Birch, Alder, Elm, Willow
These are the most common and easily misidentified, a good way to learn them is to pick a leaf and compare them. They all have their nuances and unique structure.

Pinnately compound

Ash, Elder, Rowan
Multi leafed leaves, well kind of. Leaflets that grow in groups, alternate or opposite.

Palmately compound

Horse Chestnut, Sycamore
Palmate = Palm, like your hand. Another great way to ID them. Have a count of the sections on a maple leaf (canadian flag) and a sycamore.

There are many more but the above gives you the idea! Right I’ll leave leaves alone, sorry I couldn’t help myself.

2. Bark

The big one, and the one most forget. Knowing your bark is key to positive ID.

Some of the top identifying features are below. Texture is very important. We don’t touch trees enough! Get hands on and feel it. You might get some funny looks though so make sure no one is watching!


In layman’s terms these little marks on the tree bark that look like cuts or scoring allow the tree to “breathe”. Typical examples include cherry and silver birch while poplar has lenticels that are very different and look like a diamond.


Beech is the prime example of this and is very easy to identify. However, beware. Juvenile trees will have smooth bark which over time and old age becomes much rougher. Ash and sycamore are good examples of this and can be easily misidentified.

Intersecting ridges

Old ash trees are a good example along with elder and willow.

Horizontal broken ridges

Oak is always my go to for this.

3. Growth pattern

Do the branches grow alternatively or are they opposite? Are the branches straight, bendy or droopy? Is it a single trunk or are there many “trunks” growing from the same root base?

If we look at an ash tree for example, the branches grow opposite to each other. Most other species grow alternatively.

Hazel is a prime example of growth pattern and has many stems which are almost shrub like, a very handy tree to know as well.

4. Buds

Someone once described them as sleeping leaves which I thought was nice. What colour are they? Are they black (Ash), pink (Lime and Hornbeam), green (Sycamore and White Beam) or very thin (Beech). Are they growing in clusters (Cherry)?

5. Habitat

This is very handy, not only for helping us with tree ID but also giving us an idea of ground conditions and other insights into the habitat. Alder and willow love wet ground, which may indicate a water source or a place where a vehicle may become severely bogged. Rowan or mountain ash grows well in the mountains and has been used in mountaineering route finding notes many times. Fungi generally live in the shadow of beech, birch, oak, pine and spruce.

Now we have an idea of what to look for. But which ones should I learn first? This is a difficult question and depends on your geographical location and what common trees you are surrounded by.

I will identify the top five for you as they are both common and useful.

The top five

Silver Birch (Betula Pendula)

Silver Birch is an absolute must to know for anyone who recognises the importance of natural tinder. It’s bark, when harvested correctly and ideally from dead trees, provides us with one of the best natural fire starters on the planet. It’s small thin dead twigs that can be found at the base and hung up in the branches are the very best kindling source. Both of these are due to the huge amount of oils found in the tree, which burns extremely well and creates a black smoke like burning tyres.

It can be tapped in the spring for its sap which provides a refreshing sweet drink and can also be boiled and reduced to make a rich syrup. We can make fantastic containers from its bark, these containers were used for thousands of years and have the benefit of being antimicrobial which helps to preserve food.

The leaves can be brewed into a tea, we can make infused oils that are very effective for sore muscles and aches. The inner bark can be dried and ground into a flour for baking and lastly first nations people of America used the bark to create canoes. Bit bloody handy then!

Hazel – (Corylus Avellana)

Hazel is my go-to “make things” tree. It is very prolific, has multiple stems and reacts well to being coppiced. The act of coppicing is a method of cutting back the tree on a cycle of around 5/7 years. The tree will then grow back without issue.

It is also one of my go-to trees for dead standing wood, a giveaway for this is small black marks on the bark, this is sometimes the tell for it being dead. This gives us the ability to create kindling and feather sticks for wet weather fire lighting.

We can eat the nuts, if you beat the squirrels and the birds. The wood is used to make hurdles and the frames of coracle boats. It has, I am sure, also held up many a sweet pea and is a food source for red deer and dormice.

Beech – (Fagus Sylvatica)

Some trees can be a bit dodgy at times. This is one of them. Beware the widow maker. Sorry, I am being a bit dramatic. I’ve been running about on my own in the woods for 30 years now and I’ve never been donked on the head by a falling beech bough, however, it is a commonly known danger. Beech trees have a habit of dropping very large quantities of firewood directly into camp when you did not expect it. So be warned, NEVER camp under a beech tree.

Also the leaves, when very young, provide a fantastic salad leaf, well worth a try. When the same leaves fall from the tree they make an excellent bedding material as they hold a natural insecticide.

Conifers – (Pine, Spruce, Larch and Fir)

A bit of a broad group but I’ll lump them all together for ease. If I only had one tree it would be one from this group. The uses are huge.

The leaves AKA needles can be used in a lovely tea, the thin dead twigs make fantastic kindling, the dead standing even better kindling and feather sticks, in fact, this tree is the best option for lighting fires, it is just top notch. The roots make brilliant and expedient cordage that is very strong and pliable, known as woodsmans wire. The sap, when applied to wounds such as burns, is soothing, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory.

The resin can also be mixed with charcoal and if possible beeswax to make a very effective glue that was used for centuries to repair birch bark canoes. We can also eat them, and I don’t mean pine nuts. The cambium layer of the bark can be eaten raw or cooked. It is relatively nutritious and palatable. Not my favourite wild edible, but in a pinch, it is fine.

Holly – (Ilex Aquifolium)

This last tree was a tricky one for me to pick. The reasons are simple. It is prolific, it is very easy to ID and it holds a secret. Under a holly tree there will generally be enough dead standing thin twigs to light a fire. Because of its canopy it is a very sheltered area and in some cases, even during a prolonged shower, it can remain dry. So very handy for lighting fire and getting out of the rain, both worth knowing in the UK. It is also a very good place to sit, wait and observe animals as you will be in shade and hidden from view.

So there we have it. Learn your trees. They could very well save your life. When I look into forests I see friends and allies that are keen to help me. We must look after them though and pay them the respect they deserve. Limit your need to cut living wood. Use clean tools so as not to spread disease and always leave clean cuts that will heal or regenerate. Also be careful regarding fire and roots. Conifer plantations are certainly an area that are very susceptible to damage and disastrous consequences.

Now go hug a tree, it will help you survive and thrive!

Learn more about trees on the following course: