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A Beginner’s Guide To Identifying Woodland Trees

Being able to identify different trees around the UK is becoming a much more unique skill over time. You could begin to master this skill by learning the difference between different leaf shapes and growth patterns. This is a beginner’s guide to identifying common woodland trees that grow in the UK.

English Oak – Quercus robur

The English Oak is one of the most recognisable plant species in the UK. It’s the national tree of England, and its leaves make up the logo for the Woodland Trust. It can grow up to 40m tall, forming a broad crown.

How can you recognise them?

The leaves emerge in mid-May, with four or five deep lobes and smooth edges.

The flowers grow in hanging, yellow catkins. They give way to the acorns, which initially develop as bright green – as seen above – but darken to brown before falling from the tree.

Ash – Fraxinus excelsior

Ash is one of the most common trees in the UK and can grow up to 35m tall. It forms a domed canopy that can be home to a lot of wildlife.

How can you recognise them?

The leaves are made up of 3-6 light green leaflets that grow in opposite pairs with one singular leaflet at the end. An unusual quality of ash trees is that the leaves fall while they’re still green.

The purple flowers of the ash tree appear before the leaves in the spring, and once they’re pollinated develop into winged fruits.

Field Maple – Acer campestre

The field maple is the UK’s only native maple tree. It is beloved for its autumn colour and classic-looking leaves. This tree is also great for wildlife and resistant to air pollution. It can grow up to 20m tall and has an impressive lifespan, living for up to 350 years.

How can you recognise them?

The leaves are made up of five lobes with rounded teeth. They emerge green before fading to yellow for their iconic autumn colour.

The flowers of a field maple grow in small clusters of yellow-green blooms. Once pollinated, they develop into winged fruits.

Silver Birch – Betula pendula

The silver birch tree is common in gardens and urban areas. It can grow up to 30m tall with a drooping canopy. This tree is great for soil health because its roots spread out wide, collecting more nutrients which is returned to the soil with the shedding leaves.

How can you recognise them?

The leaves are small and light green, emerging in triangular shapes with toothed edges. They fade to yellow in the autumn before falling from the tree.

The male flowers are hanging yellow catkins, while the female catkins are smaller and more erect. After wind pollination, the female catkins thicken and darken into the fruits which disperse seeds by wind in the autumn.

Beech – Fagus sylvatica

Beech is known as the queen of British trees, with its domed crown being home to rare wildlife. It can grow to 40m tall, forming a beautiful canopy.

How can you recognise them?

The leaves emerge as lime green and are 4-9cm long with wavy edges. They darken with maturity and lose the silky hairs that they began with.

The female flowers are surrounded by a cup that becomes woody after pollination, holding one or two beech nuts.

Yew – Taxus baccata

Despite the morbid connotations, yew is a beautiful tree that supplies food and shelter for a lot of wildlife. It is one of the longest-lived native species in Europe and can grow up to 20m tall.

How can you recognise them?

The leaves are small, dark green, pointed needles with grey-green undersides. They emerge in two rows either side of the twigs.

Yew is one of the only conifers that doesn’t produce seeds in cones but in arils. These are berry-like structures – pictured above – that hold one seed each.

Alder – Alnus glutinosa

Alder trees are water-loving plants that you’ll typically find near rivers, lakes, and ponds. 

How can you recognise them?

Alders have dark green leaves with serrated edges. The leaves emerge from purple or grey leaf buds. The tip of the leaf is either rounded or indented, but never pointed.

Alders are the only native deciduous trees in Britain that form cones for reproduction. The cones form from pollinated catkins that slowly turn woody and disperse seeds.

Hazel – Corylus avellana

Hazels are beloved for the nuts they produce, both by humans and animals. It can grow up to 12m and live for around 80 years if left uncoppiced. If it’s coppiced, it may not grow as tall but could live for several hundred years.

How can you recognise them?

The leaves are round or oval, pointed, and toothed. They start as green and fade to yellow in the autumn.

Hazel flowers are wind-pollinated and develop into oval fruits. Hazelnuts are surrounded by a woody shell which is framed with leafy bracts, as seen above.

Horse Chestnut – Aesculus hippocastanum

Horse chestnut trees are iconic for their conkers and autumn foliage. They can grow up to 40m tall and live for a remarkable 300 years.

How can you recognise them?

The leaves are made up of 5-7 pointed leaflets that grow from a central stem.

Horse chestnut flowers appear in May with 4-5 white petals, flushed with pink at the base. Once pollinated, they develop into the well-known conkers enclosed in a spiky green casing that fall to the ground in autumn.

Conclusion

Hopefully you now have a good concept of how to identify some of the UK’s most common trees. Click here to learn more about plants and gardening.

Updated on May 9, 2024

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