We tend to take trees for granted in our garden, parks and countryside. And in winter, devoid of leaves, you may pay them even less attention. But outlined against a bright blue sky on a sunny day, or decorated with hoar frost, each different tree reveals a particular structure of growth that helps with basic identification.
From a distance, oaks have a broad, knobbly outline, compared to the rounded, sweeping branches of the beech; and the fine tracery of thin branches on the birch, are easy to differentiate from the chunky, angular twigs of a horse chestnut. Such outlines add to the beauty of the winter landscape and even a basic knowledge of the different types makes walks and long-distance journeys more interesting.
Look really closely at the twigs of the trees themselves, however, and you enter the world of the botanist. The thickness and colour of the twigs, together with the size, shape and arrangement of the buds, are just some of the characteristics that make a more detailed identification possible..
When studying horticulture at Writtle College, we were given weekly plant idents. In them, we would be asked to correctly name 20 random samples from a ‘long-list’ of 80-100 plants in a particular group, issued the previous week. Spring-flowering shrubs, evergreens, summer bedding, autumn foliage, greenhouse perennials, conifers – the lists kept on coming, until the one that we all thought would be impossible. The twig ident.
But though it sounds daunting, putting names to twigs isn’t that bad if you have an eye for detail. For example, the obvious buds of acers (our own native field maple, sycamores, north american maples and Japanese acers) are held in pairs at intervals up either side of the twig. Meanwhile willows can be distinguished by having strongly coloured, shiny stems against which the buds are closely held. The latter are also arranged on alternate sides of the stem (although this is something they have in common with many other species of tree).
So take the ultimate test and learn to recognise the trees around you from their twigs alone. Ours is a unique and fascinating world and looking at it more closely will not only reveal more of its wonders, but help you become a better gardener.