To identify it bare...

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Plants are distinctive even when leafless. Show another gardener this bud or compare it to photos or drawings in tree and shrub encyclopedias, and you won't have to wait for its late spring red flowers to know it's a red horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea). 

...heed the buds, pay attention to pattern

Learn to know a plant even in winter. Start by clipping a couple of twigs from shrubs or trees you know, then sit down with a plant encyclopedia to compare the real things to their description.

There are specific technical terms to describe every aspect of a bud or leafless twig, from the density of fuzziness on the twig ("scabrous" has short stiff hairs, while "tomentose" is wooly) to the arrangement of buds (opposite each other, alternating sides on the twig, whorled, etc.) to the number and shape of spots where last year's leaf veins left "bundle scars" within the bud scar. University of California, Berkley's Herbarium and other schools post such dictionaries.

Fortunately, gardeners only have to look for and find some characteristic of each plant that speaks to them, to remember it always. For instance, we recognize poplar for its very large, sticky, tip buds and tree of heaven (twig and bud shown below) for the yeasty smell of a broken twig.

Not all plant encyclopedias include twig- and bud descriptions, drawings or photos. When we're trying to put a name to a leafless plant, we use:

  • Michael Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,
  • Gary Hightshoe's Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Urban and Rural America,
  • John Farrar's Trees of the Northern United States and Canada, and sometimes
  • the specialty books and sites called twig keys (Virginia Tech's, as an example)
  • Articles elsewhere on this site which have bare twig photos, such as What's Coming Up Issue 86 pruning guide; Search for (plant name) (twig)

We also use the USDA's plant data base for line drawings of twigs, or use an Internet Search engine clicked to "Images" so we can compare our twigs to the results to find a match.









   Below: Sometimes twigs are not
   a gardener's main clue to a
   species. Bark is also distinctive.
   Learn the scruffy orange of a
   Scots pine's (
Pinus sylvestris)
   younger limbs and it stands
   out in any crowd of gray
   barked oaks.

BarkScotsPine4364s.jpg  BarkPineOak4361.jpg

Growth habits can be telltale of a species, too. We recognize the bark of an oak but can also look up, and up the trunk to see that it is holding foliage through winter, confirming the identification. Seeing the leaves with their pointed lobes we can also be pretty sure it's a species in the red oak group, probably northern red oak (Quercus rubra).OakUpB4349s.jpg

OakUpA4347s.jpg  OakUpC4348s.jpg