Species List, Attempt One, Take Three

Ok, if I create a table, that’s fine. Except that I’ll update it won’t I. And then it won’t be a reflection of current recollection. So let’s keep it messy. What do I have. What do I remember?


  • Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
  • Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
  • Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) 
  • Stags Horn Sumach (Rhus typhina)

I have a share of a gorgeous Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). It’s half in Mike’s garden, as is a Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) that fell over last year and had to be cut down. That’s coppicing nicely. I thought and hoped it would. It is. It’s great to see.


  • Hazel (Corylus avellana)
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
  • Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
  • Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Actually the beech should be down here. There’s no big beech trees. Only little ones I’ve planted.

There are Cherry Trees. I think they’re probably something like Prunus kanzan as they fit the picture when in flower. Definitely not wild cherry (Prunus avium).

There’s a big tree I forgot. I think it’s Leylandii (X cupressocyparis leylandii) although it might be a Leyland Cypress (Chamaecyparis leylandii).

I’ve got some:

  • Elder (Sambucus nigra)
  • Willow (Salix spp. not sure …)
  • Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)
  • Dogwood (Cornus?)
  • Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) [yeah, I looked it up]
  • 5 Apple Trees. Little ones.

Lots of Snowdrops, Bluebells, Daffs, crocuses, aconites.

  • A holly tree. (Ilex aquifolia). Right next to the house. Should give it a hack really.
  • Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)
  • Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)



Do they know it’s winter?

It’s nearly December and I find myself back at Low Barns running a couple of winter tree  identification sessions. We’ve run these before and each time we change things a little, but everything revolves around a quiz and a walk around the reserve, and they are always good fun.

We start with an indoor session talking about the basic features useful for identifying trees in winter, then look at a bunch of samples, drink lots of tea, then go hunting…

Around the reserve there will be found lots of tagged trees; lots of numbers that have to be matched to the quiz. Although the theme was identifying trees in winter I no longer worry about concentrating entirely on winter features. There’s little point in being skilled at identifying a tree on buds alone if there are no buds to be found. In an arboretum, or park, the lower branches of many trees are raised and buds may not be accessible. You need to work with the material available to you: are there any leaves, dead or otherwise, still on the tree? In mild winters there often is, and oaks often obligingly hang on to their leaves deep into winter, which is very handy for distinguishing Sessile and English oak.

Common Alder

a single defiant Alder leaf clings on into winter

Another good clue is to look down. Sweet Chestnut, especially mature old trees, often have a fantastically expressive fissured bark. Combine that with the distinctive buds sitting on little shelves on the stout twigs, and it’s a straightforward id. The Sweet Chestnuts at Low Barns don’t tick any of these boxes. It seems to think it’s a hazel and sprawls haphazardly through the understory with a non-descript bark and hard-to-find buds. It does, however, carpet the ground with a dense layer of distinctive leaves making confirmation of the id easy.

Low Barns has a lot of ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior), at least, for the time being. With Ash Dieback being in the news it was a topic of some discussion. The obvious parallel is with Dutch Elm Disease. But with the Taxonomy of English Elm (Ulmus procera) still unclear and the possibility that many if not all English Elms were genetically identical, it remains to be seen whether a similar fate awaits the Common Ash. A prolific self-seeder, perhaps Ash has enough genetic diversity somewhere in its distribution to cope with the attack. If large numbers of ash succumb to the disease we shall see some big changes in our woodland. Lots of standing dead timber, a fantastic habitat, and lots of light hitting the woodland floor. Interesting times ahead.


identifying trees in winter

Footpath to road

Footpath up to road from Witton Dene

I couldn’t say how many times I’ve driven along the Lanchester Road or run along the railway lines from Broompark without realising that just a short distance away lay Witton Dene. It’s one of the great attractions of County Durham that all over the region there are hidden pockets of tranquillity such as this just waiting to be discovered.

Fran Mudd from the Wild Woods Project had invited me to run a winter tree identification session for the Friends of Witton Dene. These can be a lot of fun. Since identifying trees in winter relies a lot on twigs and buds, a good approach is to collect bundles of samples from the area, mix them up with a bunch of photographs, take them somewhere warm and dry, ideally with tea, coffee and an inexhaustible supply of jaffa cakes, then encourage everyone to have a look at them in comfort.

Once the key features have been identified the new-found knowledge can be tested by heading outdoors and matching the samples to the trees. Some trees are easy to identify, and some aren’t. Some, like ash, can be easier to identify in winter than they are in summer as they have large, distinctive, sooty, ominous looking black buds in opposite pairs. They tend to be less conspicuous when the tree is in leaf.

black buds, opposite pairs

The unmistakable black buds of Common Ash

After our indoor session concentrating on the common species and their key features we headed outside for a wander and a quiz. It was a great morning but not without its puzzles.

There was a question about Horse Chestnut. Not the usual question about how it got its name, but more about how it got its buds. Its sticky buds. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) has large reddish-brown sticky buds in opposite pairs. They are particularly noticeable over winter. So why are they sticky? Good question. I didn’t know the answer and used the response I heard Chris Packham use in his talk at the Gala theatre a few weeks earlier. He’d been asked about a housemartin with hairy legs. Why did it have hairy legs? Who could say, but there would be a reason. It’s expensive to make a leg hairy, or a bud sticky, and an animal or tree won’t do it without a good reason.

Hunting around, with assistance of the University of Google, was surprisingly fruitless. The question has been asked before and the hypothesis advanced usually involves predation; the tree protects itself from insects by trapping the insect on the sticky bud. It’s observable sure enough but doesn’t explain why lots of other trees manage to happily get through life without sticky buds. I’m sure there’s a reason, I just haven’t found it yet.

reddish buds on a sycamore

sun-ripened buds on a sycamore? Why are these buds not green?

The other puzzle I stumbled up on was the mysterious case of the sycamore with the reddish buds. During a visit in January I found a sycamore that had read the script and knew all the identification features it was supposed to have, except it decided to tint its southerly facing buds with a pinkish tint. This is common in Lime trees where the buds exposed to sun often have a reddish glow where the shaded side remain green. But I haven’t seen it in sycamore before. The north-south facing divide in the colour is so marked that it’s the only reason I can think for the difference.

The bleak midwinter will soon give way to spring and I shall nip back to Witton Dene sometime soon and quietly check my own answers, and see if there are any tree species I missed. Surely there’s some blackthorn hiding away in there …


A few weeks ago, while chasing butterflies at Low Barns, I chanced upon this striking beastie. I was struck by the colours and thought it wouldn’t be difficult to identify what it is, but I had butterflies to chase and other things to do. I added the photo to my library, and tagged it as unidentified. Adding it to many other similarly tagged photos that I have queued up to sort out.



I can’t recall the host tree but the leaf looks cherry-like, although looking at it again that looks like it could be goat willow / pussy willow (Salix caprea).

Here’s a closer view of the creatures.

I didn’t think any more about it and consigned the image to the back-burner of idents-to-investigate, until I read a blog that showed the same creature in the same county around the same time. This is the froghopper (Cercopis vulnerata).

It’s one of the reasons I try to follow local natural history blogs and the news on local natural history sites. Chances are, what is being seen and written about across the country might very well be on my own doorstep.

unknown flower

I can’t help thinking I’m missing something obvious on this one. It looks familiar, has nice straightforward id features, and should be straightforward to key out. But it eludes me.

I don’t have a picture of the stems but here’s a close up of the flowers. Lots of glare from the sun so they appear more washed out than they really are. Colours are generally pale blues, whites and lilacs:

4 petalled flower

Four separate petals with a noticeable vein along the centre of each one. Note that the petals tips look (to me at least) un-notched. More rounded than notched.

I used a hand-lens to try and examine the stigmas and stamens but they appear to have gone AWOL. In fact, the flowers themselves have been out for a while and are probably past their best, suggesting May as the peak flowering month.

I don’t have a good shot of the stems but this one shows them a little:

It might not be clear from that image that the stems are rounded and slightly hairy. And here’s how they look from a distance …

So far so good, and a visit to Frances Rose Wild Flower Key. I had my hunch and it keyed out as I thought it might fairly well to Broad-Leaved Willowherb (Epilobium montanum). Except it doesn’t quite fit. The petals don’t look right to me (not notched), and the leaves, I didn’t mention the leaves.

The leaves are alternate up the main stem. Alternate and spiralling, like a willow. A Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) if you like. But it is definitely not Rosebay. The leaves are soft and slightly hairy, lanceolate, but not too skinny. They appear to clasp the stem just under the flower stalk but a closer look shows that there is a short petiole. The leaves are not dark and linear like Rosebay.

So I’ve browsed a few flower books and resorted to the time-honoured scientific tradition of thumbing through them aimlessly and looking at the pictures. I’ve had a play with the BSBI questionnaire. I’ve got a few ideas, but nothing fits. These spiral leaves are confusing me. Perhaps it thinks it’s a willow.

(Update: 5th June 2011) Thanks to Phil Gates for suggesting that this could be Sweet Rocket or Dame’s Violet (Hesperis matronalis). (Not just that, I’ve just noticed he’s got a blog entry on it!). It definitely ticks all the boxes and I’m sure this is correct. I shall revisit the flower next week and have a closer look.