How to identify a maple tree in winter

Identifying Maple Trees by Their Bark and Branches in Winter [updated] – Ferrin Brook Farm

by Brian, posted in Farm

We like to plan out the maple tapping around Valentine’s Day.  For anyone new to sugaring on their land, the first step is knowing which trees are good maples for tapping.  If you did not identify them in the Summer when the iconic maple leaves were easy to spot, don’t fret.  It is absolutely possible to ID the maples on your land in winter so you can make your own syrup.

We published a complete guide to help absolutely ANYONE harvest sap from maple trees and turn it into pure, wonderful syrup.  The book is loaded with everything you need to know, including easy to understand, cheap strategies and detailed plans.  If you find this blog post helpful, get ready–the rest of what you need to know is in this book.

Check it out here:

Summer identification is a piece of cake for most people. You just need to see the leaves and you’re done.  But how on earth can we do it without the lovely leaves in the winter?  Although it might be hard to tell at first, maple trees have two very distinguishing features: bark and branching patterns.

1. Identify Maples by the branches: Opposite Branching and Paired buds

Maples are unique from many other deciduous trees in that it buds in pairs and has opposite branches (branches come out at the same point on the parent branch on opposite sides),  like this:

Note: Not EVERY branch on a maple will have an opposite branch pair since they can break off or fail to thrive for various reasons, but you will begin to recognize the way a tree with paired branches look versus alternate branching with some practice.

2. Identify Maples by Bark and rule out other opposite branching trees 

Identifying opposite branching is only one component to identifying maples.  Let’s take a look at the bark.  Maples are diverse, and can be smooth when the tree is younger and can get rather shaggy as it ages.  Here are some examples from our land:

Those all look pretty darn different to me!  I confuse the bark of maple with oak all the time, but luckily oak doesn’t have opposite branching.  Its branches alternate.

This is why identifying the branching pattern is so important!

There are only a handful of trees with opposite branching, which is great news for us maple lovers.  If you can identify a tree has opposite branching and think it could possibly be a maple, there are really only two trees you need to rule out: Ash and Dogwood.  There are other trees and plants with opposite branching, but I don’t think they’re an issue since they either don’t look like a big tree or they don’t typically grow in the regions where syrup is made.

Rule out the Ash

The branches of an ash look quite different from a maple despite the similar branching pattern, and the bark is fairly easily distinguished from maple with its diamond pattern.  Usually one look at the bark and you can tell it’s not a maple.  A typical example of Ash bark is shown below.

Rule out the Flowering Dogwood

I’ve never found a dogwood near me, but the key characteristic to look for in winter is the bark. Dogwood bark has a cool blocky look that reminds me of alligators:

Photographer: Charles Hoysa, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Original url: Shared under Creative Commons BY.


In summary: To identify a maple tree in the winter, you have to confirm opposite branching and paired buds, and then look at the bark to rule out the ash and flowering dogwood. 

Now get out those snowshoes and see how many maples you can find!  Sooner than you know it the days will be above freezing and the sap will be flowing!

You’ve taken the first step to making your own syrup, welcome to the club!!  We have the rest of the steps in our book, which is a complete guide to making maple syrup without spending too much on fancy equipment.  Check it out here:

Happy sugaring!

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Tagged identify maple trees by bark, identify maple trees by branches, identify maple trees by buds, maple syrup, maple tree identification, maple tree identification in winter

How to Identify Maple Trees

Maple leaves

On this page: red maple, norway maple, sugar maple, silver maple, black maple

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Identify your tree leaf [leave site] »

Maple tree culture and habits [leave site] »

Red Maple

Acer rubrum

Red maple leaves and bark

The red maple is usually a medium-sized tree with a moderate growth rate. The bark is smooth and light gray on young- and intermediate-aged stems, while mature bark is dark gray and rough. Crushed twigs do not emit a rank odor as does the silver maple. Twigs are reddish and have rounded, oblong, vegetative buds. Floral buds are globose and conspicuous, since they are borne in clusters. Lower branches tend to sweep upward.

The species makes an excellent suburban or rural landscape tree in acid soil regions of the state. Numerous cultivars are available and are marketed based on fall color and habit. This tree has an acid soil requirement and is intolerant of wounding. With red maples, manganese deficiencies are common in neutral to alkaline soils.
Leaves: The leaves of the Red Maple are very roughly toothed with 3-5 shallow lobes. Most of the Red Maple leaves are a light or a pale green to a whitish. During Autumn, leaves turn a bright red or an bright orange.
Twigs: Most Red Maple twigs appear to be slender and glossy. At first the twigs are green but later in the year they turn a red.
Fruit: The dioecious, red flowers are borne in dense clusters and appear in March or April before the leaves; the buds turn a deep red sometime before they open. Male trees can be planted if you do not want fruit. Fruits have wings spreading at narrow angles and ripen in May or June. The fruit consists of pairs of winged seeds, or keys, 1/2—1 inch in length on long, drooping stems. Fruit color ranges from red to green, becoming tan when mature.
Bark: On a young Red Maple the bark can be smooth and gray. On older trees, bark can appear to be darker and rougher with peeling flakes.
Other Important Facts: The Red Maple is found mostly in Pennsylvania. Most Red Maples grow to a length of about 50 feet high.

Norway Maple

More about Norway Maples [leave site]»
Acer plantanoids

Norway maple leaves and bark

The Norway maple was one of the most popular street trees in the United States in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It originated in Europe where it is native from Norway to Switzerland. It is hardy, retains its leaves longer than the native maples, and endures the smoke, dust, and drought of the city, though it is susceptible to verticillium wilt and girdling roots.

Leaves: The Norway Maples leaves are very different than those of the Red Maple. These leaves are 5 lobed and 4-7 inches wide. A milky sap pours from the stalk if it is broken. One characteristic by which it can always be distinguished is the presence of milky sap in the leaf stalks. If pressed or twisted, the leaf stalks always yield a few drops of milky sap. Foliage color is bright green above and shiny beneath, except for the horticultural color variants that include wine, golden, and variegated forms. Fall foliage color is yellow for the green-foliaged forms.
Twigs:The Norway Maples twigs are a reddish-brown. Buds grow on the ends of the twigs. Buds are large (1/4 inch) and red or greenish-red with two to three pairs of bud scales; they are a sure means of identification in the winter. Buds are rounded rather than acute-tipped.
Fruit: In early spring, the yellow to chartruse flowers are arranged in 3-inch diameter clusters along the twigs. Flowers are borne in April or May. This maple has the most attractive flowers of all maples. Flowers are showy since they bloom before the foliage emerges. Fruit has horizontally spreading wings that mature in September or October.
Bark: On young trees the bark can appear to be light brown and smooth. As the trees get older the bark gets darker and rougher. The grayish-black bark is furrowed with shallow, narrow ridges forming a regular diamond pattern.

Other Important Facts: The Norway Maple is imported from Europe. This tree, like the Red Maple, can also reach a height of 50 feet. It is not similar to other maples because of the larger leaves, milky sap and horizontal winged fruit. Leaf shape very similar to sugar maple but more ornate. A milky sap appears when the leaf is broken off of stem at the petiole. This sap is not found in sugar maple leaves and distinguishes the two species.

Sugar Maple

Acer saccharum

Sugar maple leaves and bark

The tree attains a height of more than 100 feet and a diameter of 3 feet or more. It is generally a slow-growing tree. In the open, sugar maples have a symmetrical crown. It is extensively planted as a shade tree, although it is urban intolerant and should not be used in tree lawns.

Leaves: are simple, 5 lobed with very few large teeth, which are about 4" wide. The sinuses (division between the lobes) are rounded. The leaves are also a bright green towards the top,andpale green down to the bottom.These leaves turn bright yellow, orange or red in the fall.
Twigs: are a reddish-brown and go to a light brown. The twigs are smooth (glabrous) and reddish-brown in color. The winter buds are smaller than Norway maple and sharp-pointed with six to 10 pairs of scales.
Fruit: The flowers are yellowish-green, on long stalks, and appear with the leaves in April. Male and female flower clusters appear on the same tree. The fruit, which ripens in September, consists of a two-winged key. The two wings are nearly parallel, about 1 inch in length.
Bark: gray brown, smooth on young trunks, older trunks fissured with long, and irregular flakes. Bark is variable in this species. It is usually thin, smooth and gray on young trees, becoming thicker, darker and deeply furrowed into vertical, occasionally scaly ridges.

The way to tell Red Maple and Sugar Maple apart is by the bark. The real difference is that the Red Maple has lighter and smoother bark then the Sugar Maple. Also the Red Maple has a bitter sap as compared to the Sugar Maple.

Silver Maple

Acer saccharinum (dasycarpum)

Silver maple leaves and bark

The silver or soft maple is most common on moist land and along streams. It attains heights of 100 feet or more and diameters over 3 feet. It usually has a short trunk which divides into a number of large, ascending limbs. These again subdivide, and small branches droop but turn upward at the tips. The silver maple grows rapidly and has widely been planted as a shade tree. The urban-tolerance of the silver maple makes it the longest-lived of the maples in urban settings.

The wood is soft, weak, even textured, rather brittle, easily worked, and decays readily when exposed to the elements.

Leaves Leaves are 3 to 6 inches long, opposite, simple, and palmately 5-lobed. Leaves are lobed more than half way to midrib. Margins are irregularly double-toothed. The leaf surfaces are glabrous, light green above and white to silvery below, giving it the common name "silver maple." Fall coloring is green to yellow-brown, and is not striking.
Twigs: The buds are rounded, red or reddish-brown, blunt-pointed, and generally like those of the red maple. Clusters of globose floral buds are also present on silver maple. Crushed twigs emit a rank odor.
Fruit: The flowers appear in February or March, before the leaves, in dense clusters and are of a greenish-yellow or reddish-yellow color. This may be the first native tree to flower, although the flowers are not showy. Fruits have divergent and curved wings that mature in May or June. It consists of a pair of winged seeds, or key, with wings 1—2 inches long on slender, flexible stems about an inch long. Fruit can be a litter problem, since they are borne in great numbers.
Bark The gray-brown bark is smooth on young trees, later developing irregular furrows with thin, gray, scaly plates.

Black Maple

Acer nigrum

Black maple leaves and bark

The black maple is a large, deciduous tree 60 to 80 ft in height with a dense, rounded crown and a straight trunk up to 4 ft in diameter. It is very similar to the sugar maple, with a few distinguishing characteristics: the leaves are usually palmately 3-lobed with hairy lower leaf surfaces, the leaf blades are thicker and characterisically drooping at the sides, twigs are orange-brown and the bark is almost black and more deeply furrowed.

Leaves: The leaves are simple, opposite, with a few coarse teeth along the margins, dark green on the upper surface and yellowish-green below. The fall color is yellow or brownish-yellow, sometimes red, but less so than the sugar maple. The 3 to 5-inch petioles often have leaf-like stipules at the base which obscure the lateral buds.
: Clusters of small, yellow flowers are produced in May at the base of newly-emerging leaves. The 0.5 to 1-inch-long winged fruits are produced in pairs. They mature and dry in late summer, sometimes separating when shed, leaving the hairy stalk on the tree.
Twigs: Winter buds are egg-shaped, with pointed tips and hairy, overlapping reddish-brown scales.
Bark: The bark of black maples is dark gray with deeply furrowed, irregular ridges. The bark is darker and more deeply furrowed than that of the sugar maple.

How to identify a tree by its bark | DIY

In winter, when the trees are without foliage, a special mysterious aura envelops the forest. While walking, take a closer look at the imposing "giants" - it is difficult to identify a tree without leaves, but it can still be done. It is especially exciting to do such “experiments” with children, because for them the world of “forest dwellers” is absolutely unknown, which means it is interesting. What tree stands in front of you can be identified and recognized not only by the kidneys, but also by the bark.

In mature trees, the differences are especially noticeable, so after a little practice it will not be difficult to recognize them: if the bark is smooth and uniform, you have a forest beech in front of you, vertical grooves indicate horse chestnut, deep “wrinkles” dot the “armor” of oak, and gray "scales" cover the trunk of a white maple.

The bark is the protective covering of the tree. It protects the inner, more delicate, part of the plant from drying out, disease and fungal attacks. And at the same time, it gives shelter to thousands of living beings. In winter, sharp fluctuations in air temperature at night and during the day are very dangerous for the bark - it can crack, and frost holes will appear on the trunk.

Read also: How to identify (recognize) music using programs and the Internet

EVERYTHING YOU NEED FOR THIS ARTICLE IS HERE >>> on the stems. Trees also suffer from human hands, often leaving marks on their rough "sides". Through such cuts, pathogens enter the tree. Tell your children about this and explain that trees need to be protected. After all, we all love to walk in the woods!

The outside of the bark is covered with a crust - a cork layer of dead cells. Under it is a bast. It consists of a conductive tissue transporting organic nutrients, bast parenchyma and bast fibers.

The cambium is responsible for the growth of the trunk in breadth - a thin layer of tissue from cells that are constantly dividing, forming bast cells closer to the bark, and wood cells closer to the core.

Through the tissues of light sapwood, water and nutrients enter the crown, and metabolic products accumulate in dark heartwood.

The medullary rays serve as "pantries" of nutrients and distribute them along the entire radius of the trunk. Each year, an annual ring appears, which has an externally dark strengthening latewood, formed in late summer and autumn, inside - a light one, formed in spring.

Tree structure on cut


  1. Bark
  2. Lub
  3. Cambium
  4. growth ring
  5. core beam


  1. core
  2. growth ring
  3. early wood
  4. late wood
  5. cambium
  6. lub
  7. peel
  8. bark
  9. sapwood
  10. heartwood
  1. Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) can be identified not only by its knotty branches and trunk, but also by its brown-gray bark with deep furrows.
  2. Felt linden (Tilia tomentosa) has pronounced longitudinal "cracks" on the bark.
  3. Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) has a reddish-brown bark with deep furrows.
  4. Mature common chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is characterized by layers of gray-brown bark stretching along the trunk.
  5. Sycamore maple, or sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), can be unmistakably identified by its scaly, sycamore-like grey-brown bark.
  6. The forest beech (Fagus sylvatica) is characterized by amazingly smooth thin bark until old age.


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Insignia. How to identify a tree by buds? | Nature | Society

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes


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Answer Natalya Alexandrova, teacher of the club of young naturalists

Carefully examine the tree branch. Surely her kidneys are clearly visible. How are they located?

Kidneys arranged in pairs and opposite each other (opposite)

Maple, chestnut or ash?

If it is still difficult for you to identify a tree by its kidneys, cut off a branch from it and put it in water. When the leaves bloom, it will be much easier to figure it out.

If you see a tree with paired buds in central Russia, then most likely this is one of them.

Ash has an even, light trunk with smooth bark, thick shoots, and almost black, domed buds. In addition, on the branches you can see the remains of fruits, flat and similar to the blades of oars or long drops.

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Ash. Photo: Elena Kozhina

Ash-leaved maple is often confused with ash, but the latter has gray buds, and young branches are covered with a wax coating, which is easily erased if it is scraped. And this tree often gives a lot of shoots at the base of the trunk.

Well, the most familiar to us Norway maple has buds that look like black or brown balls. Its branches are straight and strong, young - with a brownish bark. Lionfish fruits are double, horizontal.

Pathfinder School. How to understand what animals live in the neighborhood. Read the article>>

Ash-leaved maple. Photo: From the personal archive / Elena Kozhina

The horse chestnut has the largest buds, and they are rarely located on the branch. The shoot always ends with one highly developed bud.

Chestnut. Photo: Elena Kozhina

Buds arranged one at a time (in order)

Oak or linden?

Oak and linden are surprisingly similar to each other, especially at a young age. At the linden, the branches depart from the trunk almost horizontally, the buds are rounded, smooth, the branches grow in “zigzags”. Often fruits are also preserved on the linden - small nuts-balls.

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Linden. Photo: Elena Kozhina

Oak buds are also round, but covered with small scales, which makes them look faceted. The topmost kidney is surrounded by several lateral ones. Leaves can remain on the branches of an oak all winter.

Oak. Photo: Elena Kozhina

Poplar or willow?

Poplar is the easiest to recognize - its buds are sticky, and if you grind them, you will feel a characteristic bitter resinous smell. Poplar shoots and trunks are light.

Poplar. Photo: Elena Kozhina

Closer to spring, willow buds become larger, and if you carefully remove the scales from it at this moment, you will see that the scale is one and looks like a cap.

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