Which tree is which?

Lucy Johnson
January 22, 2024

One of our volunteers, Lucy Johnson, writes about trees.  

If you want to learn how to identify trees in winter when many of the most obvious clues are absent, you could do worse than buy a copy of John Poland’s “The Field Key to Winter Twigs,” published by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Alternatively, you could volunteer with the Aire Rivers Trust in the winter months and pay attention to detail, or give yourself a helping hand by attending Sheffield General Cemetery’s excellent tree identification event, intended to be held annually each January.

A Miniature Quest

As a regular Aire Rivers Trust volunteer who is not particularly observant, I went to Sheffield to learn more about the species we have been planting and to sneak a peek at the beautiful deconsecrated Victorian cemetery. I wanted to increase my ability to identify “whips,” the very young trees carefully planted by the Aire Rivers Trust in the winter months. Not just any old whip will do – the ones selected by ART are chosen to bear in mind their nativeness, their ability to coexist with water, how susceptible they are to climate change and sometimes how appetising deer find them. I was envious of the project coordinators' and other volunteers' ability to identify the whips at a glance, with a surety and ease that eluded me. With many phenomena, knowing how it’s done or knowing more about the topic can take away its simple enjoyment; let’s see if that would be the case for me.

Two leaves sit in a graphic that divides text

A Picturesque Setting

Navigating to the cemetery was pretty easy – I headed out of the city centre and soon found a steep road heading up a hill signposted “Cemetery Road.” Reasoning that I was likely in the right place, I ended up in an oasis of calm, surrounded by lovely, currently unidentifiable to me, old trees and picturesque gravestones. There was a sense of peace in the setting, enhanced by the occasional strolling dog walker. Sally and a team of dedicated volunteers manage the cemetery. Sheffield City Council supports tree maintenance.

Three Experts in One Day

I quickly found my way to the Samuel Worth Chapel, where I was greeted by one of the day’s experts, Gerry, who has spent many years researching plants and is currently working on a monograph about the plants in the cemetery. Ushered inside to the warm, I was given a handout detailing eighteen types of trees; all merged into one to my untutored eyes. I chatted with Sally and Claire, who were highly knowledgeable about trees and birds, respectively. Sally’s interest in trees developed following her employment at the cemetery, whereas Claire has had an interest in birds since childhood, thanks to her father.

Out Into The Cold

The tour began with the languorously beautiful weeping ash pair that framed the chapel. These trees were planted to enhance the chapel's design, which they have faithfully done for over a century. They are nearing the end of their life span. Fierce debates are underway as to which is the most suitable replacement for the good of the cemetery in years to come and to form a backdrop for weddings. During 75 minutes we saw everything from Turkey oak to Oriental planes, via ash, elm, elder and everything in between. Claire also identified the sounds of several less common birds for us.

A Little Bit Muddy

We were invited to step off the path at various points to get in the slightly squelchy ground among the trees – this was not a pickled-in aspic tour led from behind wire fences. While Sally ably led the tour and provided details on identifying key features, whether bark or bud position, Gerry provided a broader context and history. Of course, this being a graveyard, there was a glorious yew, which we were gently reminded was wholly toxic to humans.

Two leaves sit in a graphic that divides text

A Final Test

Dodging squirrels and the occasional runner, we returned to the chapel for the dreaded test. We were encouraged to handle the long stems numbered on the table, representing 12 key species, all covered during the talk. I confidently identified yew, horse chestnut, hazel and hawthorn, and then my attention span maxed out after about seven guesses, leaving five remaining unidentified. Sally patiently guided me through the remaining five.

Some Wizardry Here

Are any Harry Potter fans reading? Does anyone recall the moment in the first book where Ollivander the wand-maker, says something to the effect of, “The wand chooses the wizard.” I got to experience something similar when Sally placed one particular branch in my hand – it felt so wholly right, and I am sure it would form my wand in a Harry Potter existence. Indeed, I think it does form the wand for at least one character. I shall re-read the whole series from a tree-lore perspective and report back.

Two leaves sit in a graphic that divides text

Did 75 Minutes of Tree Talk Work?

A week later, waiting at the bus stop, I looked up, noting that the tall, bare trees marching down the road and clustered opposite were still a mystery to me. Then my eye fell on some unmistakable buds – horse chestnut. Conker cases still litter the ground. I am very familiar with this tree, but now I can decode its bare branches without needing to look down or to have seen the tree in summer. I may not be able to tell my rowan from my field maple yet, but my knowledge and confidence have improved. The trees have lost none of their beauty, for knowing a little more about them.

How To Get Involved

Two leaves sit in a graphic that divides text

If you want to have your go at winter twig ID, this sheet from the Woodland Trust is a great place to start.

Sheffield General Cemetery can be found here. They run history tours year-round.

Two leaves sit in a graphic that divides text

© Copyright Aire Rivers Trust 2020
The Aire Rivers Trust is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales No: 07464227 and a Registered Charity No: 1145609
Registered Office at: 38 Morton Lane, East Morton, Keighley BD20 5RS
Top linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram