IDing woody plants in winter- a how to guide

This past Sunday I had the joy of joining a group at a local park in Dunwoody, Georgia for an information session on how to identify woody plants in the winter time. Leaves typically are the easiest way to determine what plant you are observing but in the winter you have to rely on other clues. Clues you can use include leaf arrangement, overall plant shape, the bark if the plant has leaves or not, and items that are surrounding the plant on the ground. Some species of plants are inclined to hold onto their leaves while others will not. It is theorized that plants act like this to discourage deer grazing.

Before we dive into the different plants it is important to get some definitions straight. As with most of science, the general public tends to use terms that have very specific meanings and this can lead to confusions. It is also important to make sure that you are using live twigs to identify plants. Dead twigs will snap and can contain missing parts that will lead to misidentification.

  • A twig: the plant’s past year growth, general different in appearance on the plant
  • opposite leaf arrangement: the plant has twigs that are directly across from each other
    • there are fewer of these than alternate, so it’s a great clue when IDing plants
    • all Ashs, Maples, and Buckeyes have opposite leaf arrangement
  • alternate leaf arrangement: the plant has twigs that are staggered
  • lenticels: tiny dots or slops in the barks, helps the plant to bring more oxygen
  • leaf scar: the pattern that is made when the leaf falls off
    • helpful to have a macro lense to observe this

It is also important to note that plants have both flower and leaf buds. They are different and will look different from each other including the twigs which they are on. If the bark is shiny it generally means that it has a lack of hairs. Now time to divide into the different plants we observed, and how to determine that they are that plant.

Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.)

  • have a reddish tint to the sticks
  • overall plant shape is similar to a vase

Elder Berry (Sambucus spp.)

  • opposite leaf arrangement
  • leaves are compound and found very early in the spring
  • likes wet edge habitat
  • has lenticels that are very round

Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)

  • similar to the blueberry but it has opposite leaf arrangement
  • an invasive plant that has poor berry nutrition for birds

American Sweetgum (American storax)

  • has wings on the sides of the trunk
  • alternate leaf pattern
  • greenish color (makes it different from wing down)

Box Elder (Acer negundo)

  • greenish when the plant is young
  • opposite leaf arrangement
  • actually a maple tree!

Chalk Maple (Acer leucoderme)

  • holds onto leaves
  • small leaves
  • hairs on the backside of leaves
  • opposite leaf arrangement

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

  • overall plant shape
  • alternate leaf arrangement

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)


  • holds onto leaves
  • leaf buds are like little cigars
  • the nuts are triangle shaped and found in a casing (3 per case)

Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

  • normally a coastal plain species
  • all in metro ATL have been brought in by people
  • alternate leaf arrangement (all cherries are alternate)

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

  • has lenticels in the younger plants
  • very important species for birds
  • host plant for butterflies and moths
  • older trees have bark that looks like burnt corn flakes

White Oak (Quercus alba)

  • acorns on the ground
  • flaky bark
  • younger trees tend to hold onto their leaves (this supports the theory holding onto leaves is associated with discouraging deer browsing)

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

  • ski track like bark
  • acorns on the ground

Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)

  • ski track bark partway up only

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

  • has male and female plants
  • makes cones which appear similar to berries
  • a favorite plant of the Cedar Wax Wing
  • really in the juniper family

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

  • a non-native
  • under attack by the wooly adelgid, which is a tiny bug that feeds on the sap
  • the needles are actually leaves on this plant and all pine trees

Birch (Betula spp.)

  • have very thin twigs
  • lenticels
  • pale bark

Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

  • often has leftover seed pods
  • old and young plants have very different bark
  • buds on younger trees are similar to a bivalve

Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)

  • buds look like chocolate milk
  • opposite leaf pattern, like all Ashs have
  • helpful to look at the leaf scar

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

  • alternate leaf pattern
  • smelly

Musclewood or American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

  • similar to the Hophornbeam but the buds differ
  • holds onto leaves
  • smooth bark, older trees look similar to human muscles
  • tiny twigs
  • alternate leaf pattern

American Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)

  • older plants have shaggy bark
  • bud curves away from twigs, where as on musclewood it curves inward

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

  • opposite leaf pattern
  • block like bark
  • flower buds appear earlier
    • in this case, in late January in Georgia

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)

  • woody shrub
  • can’t see the leaf buds
  • has a fruit capsule
    • the seeds are really easy to grow
  • smelly

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

  • alternate leaf pattern
  • big buds
    • protects the leaf in winter

Sand Hickory (Carya pallida)

  • thing twigs
  • bud cover is peeling
  • if you look with a hand lense the outer scales on the bud have flecks of gold

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

  • likes slopes near streams
  • an evergreen
  • “suckers”

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

  • most recent growth is red
  • alternate leaf pattern

Rusty black Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum)

  • opposite leaf arrangement
  • dark rusty bud
  • blocky bark
  • smaller than an Ash

Sycamore (Planatus spp.)

  • peeling bark
  • alternate leaf arrangement
  • red leaf buds
  • like moist places

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

  • opposite leaf arrangement
  • thick twig
  • large buds

Elm (Ulmus spp.)

  • leaves have an asymmetrical leaf base
  • flaky bark

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

  • native plant
  • slow-growing

Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta)

  • greener and shinier than other holly
  • non-native
  • larger plant
  • fewer longer spines than American Holly

Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata)

  • small leaves
  • non-native

Hearts-a-bustin (Euonymus americanus)

  • opposite leaf arrangement
  • green stems
  • deer really like it
  • red leaf buds

Southern Magnolia or Bull Bay Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

  • a coastal plain species
    • likely brought here by birds

Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla)

  • large fuzzy buds
  • alternate leaf pattern
  • romaine lettuce like leaf
    • base is shaped like a butt
    • largest simple leaf in North America
  • L-shaped branches

Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

  • likes wet areas
  • white underside to leaves
  • smelly

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)

  • an evergreen orchid
  • single leaf orchid
  • leaf disappears in the summer when it flowers

Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens)

  • opposite leaf arrangement
  • grows a pair of white flowers that are fused and the berry it forms is also fused

Other plants we saw included Wax Myrtle, Inkberry, Privet (an invasive), Walnut (has thick twigs), American Hornbeam (smooth bark), Virgina Sweetfire, Water Oak, Rattlesnake Fern (an evergreen!), Gilled Poplar, Sugar Berry/ Hack Berry (very warty), Sourwood (recognizable by the bark), Christmas Fern, Cottonwood, and Crossvine (when cut the inside looks like a cross).

Mushrooms included

  • False Turkey Tail (Stereum ostrea)
    • smooth on the bottom side
    • a shelf fungus (also called Polypore)
  • Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)
    • not smooth on back
    • a shelf fungus (also called Polypore)

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