Identifying Winter Trees: Twigs and Buds

winter trees title 2 I recently learned of the book Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast and was instantly intrigued.  Jumping off from my children’s natural curiosity, last spring/summer we began a concerted effort to identify the trees of our neighborhood.  Even with the leaves it can be a tricky task.  Could one really identify trees by their bark?  Yes!  However, it is a challenge and truly a skill to be developed over time.  My family and I will definitely continue familiarizing ourselves with the characteristics of tree bark.  For right now, I was still wanting some easier way to distinguish the deciduous trees in our yard this winter.  So I set out to find a simpler way. We started with trying to identify trees by the silhouette.  That sounded simple enough.  Is the overall shape round, broad, or oval?  Do the branches reach up to the sky or droop?  Are they graceful or curly?  But there were so many variations among even the same species in our neighborhood due to outside forces (crowding, pruning, storm damage, etc.).  I felt my children might get frustrated.  So, we decided to look at a closer level: The branches themselves.

twig anatomy

source: About Education Forestry

I first educated myself on twig anatomy.  Here are some helpful resources: Books


winter twig studyOnce I felt confident enough with the basics, I collected some twig samples from around our yard.  Note: make sure that you choose a twig sample with all the anatomy features that you want to focus on.  There can be inconsistencies among branches of one tree.  I made sure that I chose both alternate and opposite branch samples with clearly visible buds.  I then set up our table with my children’s nature journals, art supplies, magnifying glasses, and twig samples.  I also had the reference books close at hand.  We started by observing and comparing samples from just two different trees (oak and maple).  My children were eager to make their sketches but first we spent some time making observations and sharing them with one another. Once they started sketching they became aware of even more details.  Some energetic and enlightening conversations followed as they shared their new observations.  They started hypothesizing about what the various markings they were noticing could be.  They asked great questions and continued discussing as they sketched.  I encouraged further exploration with “Why do you think…” and “I wonder…” questions.  Then we opened the guide books and my children labeled their sketches. At this point they still didn’t know what kinds of trees the twigs had come from.  I asked a series of questions that helped them determine what they were looking at.  Here’s what that looked like: winter twig & bud identification keyGuidebooks were used for reference but the questions were modified to pertain to our particular samples.  For example, some maple buds may be more elliptical in shape rather than globular and blunt. I’m really so glad that we started with tree’s twigs and buds.  Now wherever we walk we find ourselves looking up to determine a tree’s twig anatomy!  We just can’t stop… If you try this activity with your children, we’d really love to know.  Tell us about it in the comments or over on Facebook.


Before you go, here are a few tree books that your children may enjoy: