How to… Identify British Tree Species (Part 2)

A holly.tree shining bright with red berries and prickly green leaves in the grey of a wintertime woodland. An ancient evergreen yew standing watch over the final resting place of our ancestors. A colour-changing spindle cream flowered and glossy green in spring, turning to psychedelic pinks and oranges in autumn. Trees come in all shapes and sizes, often differing wildly from each other, but all can be found embedded in the landscape and culture of Britain.

In the last chapter of my How to… Identify British Tree Species guide, I focussed on 10 tree species that can easily be found across the UK, from the majestic oak to the graceful silver birch. These are but a few of the now 80 odd native and non-native species that can be found in the UK. From providing food to flood prevention, from the countryside to the city, trees can be found playing important roles across the country right now.

Following on from my last guide, part 2 covers 10 more tree species that can easily be found across Britain. This handy guide of facts, drawings, and photos is here to help you to identify these species at any time of year. Here’s to learning something new everyday!

Tree Species

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

  • Family: Rose – related to fruiting trees such as cherry and plum
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Large shrub, occasionally small tree, up to 4m, forming impenetrable thickets
  • Stems and Twigs: Young twigs downy, maturing to dark brown bark, that shows orange beneath, with thorns
  • Leaves: Small, oval, alternate, tapering to a point, toothed margins, dull above and hairy beneath
  • Flowers: Flowers are white with 5 petals and red-tipped anthers. Flowers appear late March-April, before the leaves, often alongside cold weather known as Blackthorn winter
  • Seeds: Produces round, blue-black fruit (sloes) with a single seed (stone)
  • Range and Habitat: Grows on the edge of scrub woodlands and in hedgerows

In Winter: Twigs are dark and not shiny, with thorns at least 2cm long

Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to lychee and horse chestnut
  • Origin: Non-native (introduced in the 17th century from Europe and Asia)
  • Shape and Size: Shorter and more slender tree, reaching up to 30m
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is grey with many small fissures (not flaking), and twigs are slender and brown with tiny white spots
  • Leaves: Thin, light green leaves, opposite and have long pointed lobes
  • Flowers: Erect clusters of pale yellow flowers, before the leaves (April-May)
  • Seeds: Winged keys in opposite pairs
  • Range and Habitat: Increasingly planted and self-sown in parks, gardens, and hedges

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark, and individual buds that are green and red

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

  • Family: Aquifoliaceae – holly trees
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Narrow-crowned, conical tree with regular branching, reaching up to 20m
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is green when young, becoming smooth and grey with age
  • Leaves: Alternate, long, glossy, spiny teeth, and waxy on top, matt and pale green beneath
  • Flowers: White, 4-petalled and in close clusters, with male and female flowers on separate trees (May-August)
  • Seeds: Red berries with small seeds, only found on female trees
  • Range and Habitat: Can be found everywhere across the British Isles but prefers drier soils

In Winter: Evergreen spiky leaves and red berries, a symbol of Christmas

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

  • Family: Cornaceae – dogwoods
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Tall and deciduous sending out suckers to form dense thickets (up to 10m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark grey and smooth with shallow ridges, giving off a fetid smell when bruised, attractive to insects
  • Leaves: Opposite, long, oval, pointed, hairy on both sides, side veins curving forward, and no teeth. Crimson colouring in late autumn
  • Flowers: Greenish-white 4-petalled flowers (June-July)
  • Seeds: Round, bitter, black berries in clusters (sometimes called ‘dogberries’), ripening in August or September
  • Range and Habitat: Frequent in Midlands and South, grows chiefly on chalk soils, but also found in woodlands, scrub and hedges

In Winter: New twigs are bright red

Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)

  • Family: Mallow family – related to trees such as cotton and cacao
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Tall tree with long slender branches that start near the ground (up to 40m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Young bark is smooth and grey, whereas old bark is fissured
  • Leaves: Long and heart-shaped with small teeth and tapering to a point. Dark green and hairless above, whereas undersides are paler with white or buff hairs in the vein junctions
  • Flowers: Greenish-yellow 5-petalled flowers that are sweet smelling (late June-July)
  • Seeds: Encapsulated in small round hanging fruits, hairy, faintly ribbed and with pointed tips
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread in rows or avenues in streets, parks and also hedges

In Winter: Red, hairy twigs and shoots

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

  • Family: Adoxaceae – previously in the honeysuckle family , but now reclassified in moschatel
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Bushy shrub with many stems or growing into a small tree (up to 10m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Light brown bark is thick, corky, fissured, and strong smelling
  • Leaves: Long, dark green, and opposite, with leaflets in pairs, rounded, stalked and with teeth
  • Flowers: Creamy-white, small, and sweetly fragrant in flat-topped clusters with yellow anthers (May-August)
  • Seeds: Produces a juicy, edible, purplish-black berry
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread and common throughout Britain, particularly flourishing where nitrogen content high

In Winter: Pungent, hollow-stemmed twigs and often dotted with light-brown bumps

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

  • Family: Rose – related to fruit trees such as apricots and apples
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Quick growing, becoming a dense shrub or single stemmed tree (up to 15m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is hairless and greyish-brown, with many small scales and sharp spines
  • Leaves: Alternate, long, toothed, shiny, lobed, and roughly oval-shaped
  • Flowers: Showy white and fragrant (sickly sweet) with 5 petals, and pink or purple anthers (late April-June). Become deep pink as they fade
  • Seeds: Fleshy fruits (haws) turn dark wine-red and contain a single seed
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread and common throughout Britain, in hedges, scrub or woodland margins

In Winter: Spines emerging alongside buds on the twigs

Beech (Fugus sylvatica)

  • Family: Beech – includes chestnuts and oaks
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Older trees have a massive, many-branched dome, whereas young trees are slimmer and more conical in outline (up to 36m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Smooth grey bark may break into small squares
  • Leaves: Long, wavy margins, alternate, hairy leaf edges, and shiny green on both surfaces
  • Flowers: Young leaves appear with yellow long-stalked male flowers on tassel-like stalks, and greenish white female flowers (May)
  • Seeds: Four-lobed husk are two triangular nutlets (mast)
  • Range and Habitat: Native in woods in the south, but widely planted elsewhere

In Winter: Often hold on to leaves and have sharply-pointed buds

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

  • Family: Staff-vine
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Small tree or big bush up to 6m
  • Stems and Twigs: Young, smooth, greenish bark later turns grey
  • Leaves: Light green leaves are opposite, thin, oval-shaped, and pointed, with small finely toothed margins. Turn pinkish-red in autumn
  • Flowers: Small greenish-yellow flowers with 4 narrow petals (May-June)
  • Seeds: Four-lobed seed capsules, which turn a deep pinkish-red when ripe.
  • Range and Habitat: Grows throughout England and Wales, most frequent in the South, but rarer in Scotland and Ireland. Found in woods, scrub, and hedgerows, in particular on lime

In Winter: Buds and twigs are angular with four sides

Yew (Taxus baccata)

  • Family: Yew
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Round-headed tree with dark foliage, often has many trunks (reaches up to 20m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Smooth, light brown bark flakes to red patches
  • Leaves: Needles dark green on top and matt yellow-green on underside
  • Flowers: Male and female flowers are found on separate trees. Male flower is yellow, and tiny female flower is green (February-April)
  • Seeds: Bright red ripened fruits, much enjoyed by birds, partially encloses a single seed that is poisonous to humans
  • Range and Habitat: Found in woods, scrub, screes, downs and often on lime

In Winter: Evergreen needle-like leaves present all year round

Drawings are my own work

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