When we think of trees, we often think first of their leaves: the fluttering green flags of aspen in a summer breeze or the brilliant blaze of a sugar maple in fall, or the feathery fronds of spruce sugared with snow in winter. But trees have distinctive characteristics beyond their leaves, and these characteristics help us to identify deciduous trees in the winter when the last season's leaves are moldering on the forest floor. Whether you want to find a sugar maple to tap for syrup or you're merely curious about a tree you come across on a winter walk, you can learn to identify trees without having to rely on their leaves.
Study the overall shape of the tree. Note whether the tree is tall or short, with many branches or few, rounded or conical. For example, apple trees have a rounded shape, like the trees children draw, while pear trees have upright branches like a candelabra.
Pay attention to the arrangement of twigs on the branches, whether they are directly opposite each other or alternate. Look for buds and note whether they're found on the ends of twigs (terminal) or along the twigs (lateral). Oak trees have terminal buds and twigs that are arranged alternately, while maple trees have lateral buds and twigs arranged opposite one another.
Note the tree's habitat. Note whether the area is wet or dry, sunny or shady.Some trees, such as sycamore, prefer to grow by water, while mesquite trees prefer drier soil.
Examine the bark. Observe its color, texture, and thickness. Aspen trees have smooth gray, almost white bark that peels from the trunk in large pieces, while beech trees have smooth gray bark that doesn't peel off. Ash trees have rough, medium gray bark that feels like cork. Dogwood tree bark is brown and rough, with the surface of the bark broken up into little rectangles.
Look for fruit, seeds or cones. Even in winter, many trees leave behind signs of summer's bounty, in the form of withered berries, seed pods or cones. Look for these still clinging to branches or lying at the base of the tree. Sweetgum trees leave behind hard, spiky balls which will be littered around the tree, while a few winged seed cases may cling to the tips of elm twigs.
Compare all the information you've gathered to descriptions in a guide to trees. Even without the leaves, you should be able to identify most trees by the characteristics you've observed.