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Want to get to know your trees? With a little patience, you can learn how to identify many of the 50 native tree species growing in the British Isles, using clues such as leaf shape, flower and seed type to guide you.
The process of identifying trees can start in several ways, depending on what time of year it is. In spring you can look at the flowers or catkins. In summer you can look at the leaf shape – does the tree have needles or flat, deciduous leaves? And in autumn you can learn how to identify trees from berries or seeds. Bark colour varies from tree to tree, too, as does the shape of leaf buds. Winter is a great time to look at twigs.
It’s also useful to look at the overall shape of the tree. Is it tall and thin or does it have a triangular shape or a broad crown? And where is it growing? You can often determine what tree you’re looking at by where it is. Some trees are found in wetter habitats, while others are more suited to growing at high altitudes.
English oak (Quercus robur) is a common tree with rough bark and a broad crown. It bears inconspicuous flowers in spring, followed by acorns in autumn. English oak attracts a huge range of wildlife, from tiny leaf miners and moths that feast on its foliage, to wild boar that eat its acorns in autumn.
Look out for: a spreading crown, round-lobed leaves with a short leaf stalk (petiole), loose, dangling catkins in spring and acorns in autumn. Height: 40m.
Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is a tall tree with pinnate leaves and unusual black leaf buds. Bullfinches eat the seeds and woodpeckers, owls, redstarts and nuthatches use the trees for nesting.
Look out for: grey bark, light green pinnate leaves, usually comprising three–six opposite pairs plus a terminal leaf at the end. Clusters of purple flowers around the shoot tips in spring (male and female flowers tend to form on different trees). Oblong, winged seeds fall in autumn. In winter look out for grey twigs with large, black leaf buds. Height: 35m
Like ash, the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) has pinnate leaves but is shorter in stature. It makes a fine garden tree of medium height. Bees visit its flowers in spring and birds such as robin, blackbird and thrushes feast on its bright red berries in autumn.
Look out for: Smooth, silvery grey bark. Pinnate leaves comprising 5–8 pairs, plus a terminal leaf at the end. Small clusters of cream-white flowers, followed by red berries in autumn. Height 15m.
Silver birch, Betula pendula, is a tall, airy tree with papery white bark and a light canopy that throws dappled shade beneath it. Blue tits love to pick among the twigs for insects, and also eat their seeds in autumn.
Look out for: silvery white, papery bark. A light crown throwing dappled shade. Small, triangular-shaped leaves with toothed edges, that turn yellow in autumn. Hanging catkins in spring and catkin-shaped fruits in autumn. Height: 30m.
Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a tall, statuesque tree with smooth grey bark and glossy leaves. Its masts in autumn are loved by a variety of wildlife – mature beech trees attract nesting birds and squirrels.
Look out for: a huge domed crown and smooth grey bark. Oval, pointed leaves with wavy edges, that emerge lime green in spring and darken with age, becoming orange and waxy before falling. Inconspicuous, tassel-like flowers in spring, followed by a woody cup containing two beech nuts (known as masts) in autumn. Height: 40m.
Like beech, hornbeam is perfect for growing as a hedge. Hornbeam trees and hedges are the food plant for caterpillars of a number of moth species, including the nut tree tussock. Finches and tits and small mammals eat the seeds in autumn.
Look out for: oval leaves with serrated edges (which help distinguish them from wavy-edged beech leaves). Dangling catkins in spring and winged fruits in autumn. Hornbeam is often grown as a hedge, where it keeps its leaves throughout winter. Height: 30m.
Hawthorn is an excellent tree for a small garden. It's well-used by wildlife, from moths and their caterpillars to pollinating insects and birds, which feast on the berries in autumn.
Look out for: dense, thorny habit, knotted grey bark and slender, thorny twigs. Masses of white flowers in May, followed by red berries or ‘haws’ in autumn. Deeply lobed leaves, around 6cm long, which turn yellow before falling. Height: 15m.
The bird cherry is a beautiful tree, clothed in blossom in spring and dark berries in summer. Birds, such as blackbirds, love to eat the fruit.
Look out for: clusters of fragrant, cream-white flowers in spring, followed by small, red-brown cherries in summer, which ripen to black by late summer. Oval, finely serrated leaves. Height: 25m.
Look out for: small, shiny leaves with five lobes, which turn golden yellow before falling. Clusters of inconspicuous flowers in spring, followed by pink-tinged winged fruits in autumn. Height: 25m.
Thanks to its flat leafstalks, aspen leaves shimmer in the slightest breeze, giving the tree the appearance of trembling.
Look out for: shimmering foliage as it appears to ‘tremble’ in the breeze. Rounded leaves with blunt teeth and flat leaf stalks. Male and female flowers appear on different trees – female trees bear fluffy catkin-like seeds in summer. Height: 25m.