Forage Friday #99 My Best Hardwood ID Tip.

Just a few decades ago I was given some good advice on identifying plants and animals and it came in the form of a question. “Do you need a reference manual to remember your friends faces?” The question was intended to provoke a new attitude in learning all the wildlife in my area.  It’s important to learn the name of a plant and to be able to connect the common names with the scientific name in order to learn the plant’s attributes and how it can be used etc but that’s just data retrieval. If you’re going to know the plant when you see it you’re going to want to know it’s face. 
Social media is an awesome opportunity to network with other enthusiasts and share information about almost everything. And one of the greatest benefits is the ability to post a photo of a plant and crowd source the identity. But there’s something that I’ve noticed around the general public that’s different from the scientific community and that’s that almost nobody looks at the leaf scars when trying to get an ID on a tree or bush. So tonight I’m going to try and introduce you to a couple of easy ones. We’re going to try and keep it simple. No long and complicated scientific names or complex methods of breaking down the more “geeky stuff”. I just want to share a few basic patterns to give you a start in the right direction.

So just like when we first meet our friends we’re going to try and memorize their faces. And when I was first learning how to identity trees by the leaf scar I subconsciously made the scars into a face in my mind. No two species of woody plants have the same “face” but we will see a family resemblance within the same families.

From left to right. Flame Azalea, Mountain Magnolia and Buckeye.

To the right of the page we see three different twigs from my yard. I’ve zoomed in and cropped down the images to isolate the scars from last year’s leaves. What I want you notice is the overall shape of the “face” made by the scars and the pattern of “freckles” on the face.  The freckles are actually what’s left behind by the vascular vessels when the leaves drop off in the Fall. It’s these 2 patterns that are unique to each species of woody plant.

Most people recognize the leaves themselves and that’s a great start but because most of the trees in Appalachia lose their leaves once a year we may not have the leaves to work with when we’re trying to make maple syrup for the first time or collecting the inner bark of a specific bush to treat an infection in a survival situation. But the leaf scar is there all year and is a very reliable marker.

The pattern of distribution is also a great clue in learning the identity of a tree. Mountain Magnolia Twigs in Early Spring

Here is a Mountain Magnolia from my special spot where I like to be still. Notice how the leaf scar seem to spiral around the tree in whorls? Even with leaves gone its easy to envision what the twigs will look like in a few weeks when they’re green again.  The size of the leaf scar also gives a little clue that this tree has some very big leaves. ( Over 12 inches! ) And of course the size of the buds are another clue as seen in the next photo. The Mountain Magnolia Leaf Buds.

I haven’t actually measured the length of the buds but the terminal buds (The ones on the end of a twig.) are about length of my ring finger give or take a knuckle. But the buds just above the leaf scar are absolutely tiny.

Another tree with a huge bud is the Buckeye growing just a few feet away.
You’ll notice from the collage above that the Buckeye has a longer “face” than the  Magnolia. Like the azaleas it’s almost heart shaped the “freckles” tend to follow the margins. In the azaleas the freckles are in the center of the leaf scar and the azaleas have much smaller scars.

The terminal buds of a young Buckeye.

The end buds of the Buckeye are fatter than the Magnolia and almost as long. They’re also pink this time of year but throughout the winter they are brown.

Now let’s compare these two with something much smaller. 

Sugar Maple Buds and scars.

Here’s a sugar maple that popped up a few years ago. The faces are small and kinda hard to see in this photo but they are Crescent shaped and there are 3 freckles. One in the center and one on each end.  We can also see the distribution pattern here is “opposite”. The leaves and twigs occur in pairs on opposite sides and the twigs terminate the three buds.  Now the sugar maples have a cousin on my place and that’s the Box Elder.A young Box Elder showing it’s family resemblance to the Maples.

Now the faces on this twig are difficult to see because of the age of the twigs but they are also Crescent shaped. The buds are also in the opposite pattern and would have three buds on the end of the twigs however the local deer population has decided to sample them.

Willow Leaf Scar


The last example I have for you tonight is a willow twig.  The scar doesn’t really resemble a whole face as much as it does a single large eye. However it is an example of how individual species can have a unique face so that when the leaves are off we can still have a way to identify the tree.

So in closing tonight’s Forage Friday let me plant the idea of taking advantage of the summer by creating a journal and writing your own guide book. Either take a decent photo of both the leaf and last year’s leaf scar or if you’re artistically inclined sketch them. Another good way to preserve the image is a charcoal rubbing of the features. Once you have them you put them in a binder along with details about how to use the different plants.

I’ve only shared the method for learning the identity because once you have that the internet is full of guides that will give you the names of each plant.  You’ll want to take note of where it was growing and in what kind of environment to aid in the ID. Once you know the name and face you can fill in everything else and using a good binder lets you add pages as you learn more. 

Good night friends and be blessed throughout your days.

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