beech tree

How to identify trees: native deciduous trees

In our four-part series on identifying trees, Lia Leendertz outlines the key features of common, native deciduous trees so you can learn how to recognise them, even out of season. Here she takes a closer look at oak, ash and beech.

Knowing the difference between oak and ash, beech and hornbeam, feels like the sort of basic knowledge we should all have under our belts, like the ability to tie a slip knot and the setting point for jam.

Advertisement

Here we will show you the key features of native deciduous trees that you are likely to encounter on your own winter woodland walk to help you learn how to spot them.

Quercus robur – common oak

Quercus robur - common oak

The oak is the tree that is most strongly associated with the English countryside and is the UK’s most common tree, particularly prominent in central and southern woodland. Quercus robur is known as the English, common or pedunculate oak, and is distinct from the other British native oak Quercus petraea, the durmast or sessile oak, a more upwards-reaching tree. The common oak has long been planted in forests for its strong timber, its bark and its acorns. Each tree can live for up to a thousand years. Within its wide, spreading canopy can live an ecosystem of birds, lichens, fungi, caterpillars, squirrels, dormice and bats. Look for oaks in ancient woodland, 18th-century parkland or standing alone majestically in farmland.

  1. Bark

    oak bark

    Young oaks have smooth, silvery-brown bark. As trees age, this grows rugged and is covered in finger-shaped platelets with deep fissures in between.
  2. Leaves

    Oak leaves

    Oak leaves are longer than they are wide and have five or six deep, rounded lobes and short stalks. Leaves first emerge in mid-May, turning yellowy brown in autumn, and are often held on the tree late in the year.
  3. Winter twig

    Winter oak twig

    The winter twig is smooth and silvery brown with brown clusters of buds concentrated at the tips. These alternate, but spiral around the twig in a haphazard manner.
  4. Acorns

    Oak acorns

    The oak’s seeds are acorns: shiny, ovoid fruits held tightly in textured cups. They start green and slowly turn brown, eventually loosening from the cup and dropping to the ground.
  5. Silhouette

    Oak silhouette

    The oak tree silhouette is sturdy and wide, low and spreading, often increasingly so with age. The tree has a gnarled look, with each of the branches kinked and snaking outwards.

Fraxinus excelsior – common ash

Ash tree

Ash is graceful, tall and striking in the landscape. The excelsior in its Latin name means high, elevated or lofty, and ashes can reach heights of around 45 metres. Ash is the third most common tree in Britain and has long been exalted for its strong, lightweight and easily worked wood, which is also of brilliant burning quality. But they are now under threat from Chalara dieback disease, which has caused widespread damage in continental Europe and has now spread to Britain. Evidence from Europe suggests that older trees may be able to withstand attacks for some time, before eventually being weakened enough to succumb to attacks from other pathogens. It is a worrying time for these beautiful trees.

  1. Bark

    Ash bark

    Young ash bark is smooth and grey brown, but as the trees age it becomes deeply fissured, often in diamond shapes with a suggestion of zigzags.
  2. Leaves

    Common ash leaves

    Each leaf comprises three to six pairs of elegant, tapering leaflets, arranged in pairs along the leaf stalk, plus a single leaflet at the end. Diva-like, the leaves emerge in late spring and drop in early autumn.
  3. Winter bud

    Fraxinus Excelsior (Common Ash)

    Ash buds are very distinctive, making the ash tree one of the easiest to identify in winter. The fat, black, pointed buds
    are borne in opposite pairs.
  4. Keys

    Fraxinus Excelsior (Common Ash)

    The seeds, known as keys, hang in heavy, shaggy bunches from the tree: lime green in summer, yellow in early autumn, rusty brown in winter, when they are very prominent.
  5. Silhouette

    silhouette

    Elegant, graceful and tall, often with a domed canopy. When trees are mature the lower branches weep down towards the earth before turning up again at the tips.

Fagus sylvatica – beech

beech tree

You will often find beech trees growing only among their own, particularly on free-draining, chalky and sandy soils. Beech is particularly good at snaffling every scrap of light, and in summer beech woodlands can be gloomy, strangely empty places. Beech seedlings can happily grow beneath the canopies, being expert at capturing low light themselves, but little else can, and the bigger trees finish the job by sending their roots snaking across the surface, reducing germination opportunities further. In autumn this monopolistic behaviour can be forgiven, when the trees turn into a mass of a pure shimmering copper, until even the air seems to take on a golden, honey-tinged glow – one of the great spectacles of the tree year.

  1. Bark

    beech bark

    When trees are young the bark is grey and smooth with some horizontal markings. As the trees age, the bark becomes rougher with snaking vertical plates, sometimes cracked horizontally.
  2. Leaves

    Fagus Sylvatica (Common beech)

    Leaves emerge lime green in spring, unfolding like fans and covered in silvery, silky hairs. They turn dark green in summer, and vibrant copper in autumn. Young trees hold leaves all winter.
  3. Winter twig

    Fagus Sylvatica (Common beech)

    Thin, elegant, dark-brown stems hold large, sharply pointed buds that are placed alternately and are angled away from the stems, rather than held close to it.
  4. Beech mast/nuts

    In autumn clusters of pale-brown, spiky seed cases drop to the ground and peel themselves open, each revealing three shiny, three-sided beech nuts within.

  5. Silhouette

    beech silhouette

    The beech silhouette is tall and broad and straight limbed. It has a great number of branches that reach confidently up and out from the main trunk.

Useful links:

Westonbirt, The National Arboretum

National Tree Week

Advertisement

Words Lia Leendertz
Photos Jason Ingram
Illustration Liam McAuley