A Beginner's Guide to Winter Tree Identification

How to Recognize and Name Dormant Trees

Tree with snow on branches against a blue sky.

Photos by R A Kearton / Getty Images

Identifying a dormant tree is not nearly as complicated as it might seem at first glance. Winter tree identification will demand some dedication to applying the necessary practice to improve the skill of identifying trees without leaves. But if you follow my instructions and use your powers of observation you will find a pleasurable and beneficial way to enhance your skills as a naturalist—even in the dead of winter. Learning to identify a tree without leaves can immediately make your growing season trees easier to name.

Using Botanical Markers and Tree Characteristics for Winter Tree Identification

Crown of a tree covered in snow against a cloudy blue sky.

Kyryl Gorlov / Getty Images

Don't be fooled into thinking that a twig key is the only answer when identifying a dormant tree. Your overall observation skills and sizing up a tree will be invaluable even as the twig key is tucked away in your warm library.

A tree's crown can give you valuable clues to finding a tree's botanical name by unique crown shape, fruit and/or their leftover containers, persistent leaves, live twigs and growth habit. Get to know a tree's characteristics or "markers".

Examining a Tree Twig for Winter Tree Identification

A slender twig on a tree with ice.

Laura Elena Colangelo / 500px / Getty Images

To use a tree twig key means learning a twig's botanical parts. A key can help you identify a tree to the specific species by asking two questions where you can affirm one and eliminate the other. This is called a dichotomous key. Become familiar with a tree twig's characteristics.

Using Alternate and Opposite Tree Leaf and Twig Arrangement for Winter Tree Identification

Branches and twigs covered with snow on a Spruce tree.

Isabel Pavia / Getty Images

Most tree twig keys start with the arrangement of leaf, limb, and buds. Determining opposite and alternate arrangements is the primary first separation of the most common tree species. You can eliminate major blocks of trees just by observing its leaf and twig arrangement.

Identifying a dormant tree can be a visual challenge. Visit a gallery of winter photos that illustrate many subtle botanical clues exhibited by dormant trees. Naturalist Josh Sayers has developed his Portrait of the Earth photo resource for identifying trees in winter. It may help to use this and other resources as you learn about trees and their dormant parts.