Identifying Trees by Their Bark

Nov 29, 2007Updated 7 months ago

It is useful to start by determining whether the tree has opposite or alternate twigs and buds. (See Identifying Trees in Winter.)

The next step is to examine the bark. It takes a lot of practice to learn to recognize bark patterns visually. Fingertips learn textures more rapidly, so it is helpful to use the sense of touch when examining bark.

Keep in mind that almost all saplings have smooth bark and that distinguishing characteristics do not develop until trees are more mature, changing still more into old age. Following is a breakdown of common tree barks by texture.

  • Smooth

Beech has smooth, light grey bark with virtually no cracks or ridges, although there is a disease that causes a bull’s-eye pattern of cracks. Long, pointed buds.

Red maple often resembles beech, even when the tree is fairly large, although most mature red maples develop flaky bark. Reddish buds.

Hornbeam is a small tree whose bark is smooth except for vertical ripples that give it a sinewy look.

Juneberry (shadbush) is a small tree with light and dark grey stripes.

Striped maple is a small tree whose green, waxy bark has white and reddish-brown stripes.

Sweet (black) birch has smooth dark grey bark withraised horizontal lines. Old or diseased bark may break up into large plates with peeling edges.

Wild (black) cherry has smooth dark reddish-brown bark withraised horizontal lines, often confused with black birch. (Scratch and sniff the inner bark of a twig; birch smells like wintergreen, cherry like bitter almond.) Older cherries have bark broken up into large, uniform flakes.

Grey birch is a small tree with chalky white non-peeling bark.

  • Peeling

Paper (white) birch has chalky white bark that peels horizontally in relatively large strips. Lower layers are pinkish-orange.

Silver (yellow) birch has shiny silvery-yellow bark that peels horizontally in small strips.

River birch has pinkish-tawny to silver-grey barkthat peels horizontally in small strips.

Shagbark hickory bark peels vertically in large, thick, curving strips.

Shellbark hickory bark peels vertically in smaller strips.

Hop hornbeam is a small tree whose bark peels vertically in thin, narrow, flaky strips.

Sycamore bark peels in patches of green, brown, and white. Lower part of old trunks may be uniformly dark and furrowed.

  • Flaky

Red maple, when mature, has grey bark that breaks off easily in vertical flakes.

White oak has rough, flaky bark.

Elm has shallowly furrowed bark with soft, flat ridges that flake easily.

Wild cherry (See above under “Smooth”.)

  • Furrowed

White ash bark has deep furrowsand relatively sharp, narrow ridges that tend to converge in diamond shapes.

Norway maple resembles white ash, but twigs are thinner.

Tulip-tree resembles white ash but has alternate twigs.

Cottonwood bark has deep furrows and wide, flat ridges. It grows mostly in the fertile soil along rivers and creeks.

Chestnut oak bark resembles cottonwood, but it grows in dry, acidic soil, usually in open woods.

Black walnut and the closely related butternut have dark brown bark with deep furrows. Butternut has fat, downy twigs, while black walnut has fat, hairless twigs.

Sassafras has dark brown bark with deep furrows, aromatic inner bark. (Scratch and sniff twigs).

Black locust bark is deeply furrowed with meandering, ropy ridges. Twigs have small, paired thorns.

Elm has shallowly furrowed bark with soft, flat ridges that flake easily.

Basswood has vertically furrowed bark and flat ridges, reddish gelatinous buds (gooey when chewed).

  • Rough

Oaks with bristle-tipped leaves, including Red, Black, Willow, Pin, and others, have bark that is very scratchy to the touch but does not peel or flake.

Sugar maple has bumpy bark, a few narrow vertical furrows, and whitish-grey lichen over part of the trunk.

For a field guide with photos of bark, see National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees (New York: Knopf), 1980.