How to identify oak, ash and beech trees
Lia Leendertz outlines the key features of oak, ash and beech - common, native deciduous trees - so you can learn how to recognise them, even out of season
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 tree
You will often find beech trees growing only among their own, particularly on free-draining, chalky and sandy soils. The beech tree is particularly good at snaffling every scrap of light, and in summer beech woodlands can be gloomy, strangely empty places. Beech tree 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 beech 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.
When beech 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.
Beech tree 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 beech trees hold leaves all winter.
Thin, elegant, dark-brown stems hold large, sharply pointed buds that are placed alternately and are angled away from the beech stems, rather than held close to it.
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.
The beech tree 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.
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