Lately, I’ve been starting to look at trees in a whole new light. I’ve been starting to look more closely at their leaves, and not just for their beauty’s sake but because it is the best way to identify their species.
In the New Year, when I vowed to lead a more tree-filled life, one of the things I said I would do was to get better at recognising and identifying trees. I meant to become thoroughly acquainted with my old yellowed copy of A Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Northern Europe by Alan Mitchell, left to me last year by a family friend. But each time I’ve opened it I’ve shut it again soon after, daunted by the myriad of Latin names and complex diagrams, simply not knowing where to begin.
This has changed thanks to a one-day tree ID workshop with botanist and ecologist Dr Ros Bennett, organised by The Tree Council’s member organisation, the Woodland Trust and held at Sevenoaks Nature Reserve in Kent.
According to Ros, the most obvious clue to a tree’s identity is whether its leaves grow in opposite pairs or whether they alternate along the twigs. Apparently, the vast majority of native British trees do the latter, with just a select few such as field maple growing symmetrical leaves.
The next thing you need to ask yourself is if the leaf is simple in shape, like a beech or lime leaf say, or if it is lobed like an oak or sycamore, or compound like an ash or horse chestnut (a mix of the too). It’s easy to get caught out, as some of us did on the workshop, of mistaking the leaves of an ash, elder or rowan as simple – in fact, these trees have compound leaves made up of several leaflets.
Once you’re clear on the shape of the leaf margin you’ll need to pay attention to its edges – are they entire, serrated or bi-serrated? This last part takes a bit of practice and it helps if you have a hand lens.
Lastly, the length of the leaf in relation to its width also points to the tree’s species; you just have to fold it over and decide whether it is roughly one and a half, twice or three times as long as wide.
Equipped with a simple chart and following these four basic steps, my fellow learners and I were able to tentatively identify a range of different trees, including a rowan, a spindle tree, a hawthorn, an elder and a guelder rose. However, most of the time, the method just narrowed the possibilities down and we then had to look out for distinguishing features such as the silky white hairs on the underside of white willow leaves or the type of flowers, such as blossom or catkins.
So, after this lesson, I feel I know trees a little better, my field guide is not quite so scary as it once was and I now know something that has been bugging me for ages: the trees on my street with the pretty white blossom in spring and scarlet berries in autumn are whitebeams. Well, at least I’m fairly confident they are…