Opposite Trees

Karl VonBerg Monday, 09 January 2017

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Even without leaves, winter has its advantages when it comes to identifying trees. One of those advantages is that it’s easier to see a tree’s branch structure.

Most trees branch in one of two ways: alternate or opposite. Alternate branching trees have branches that come out of the stem on only one side at a time. The branches “alternate” back and forth. In opposite branching, the branches appear in pairs. They are “opposite” each other. Here’s an example:


When identifying branching, binoculars can be helpful to see the branching pattern way up there in the tree. It’s also important to check multiple branch pairings. Branches can break off, so it’s easy to be fooled and think a tree is alternate when it’s really opposite. You can see an example of this in the bottom two branches of the opposite stem in the photo above.

How does all this branching help you identify trees? Lots of trees have alternate branching, but in upstate New York, there are two main tree families that have opposite branching: maples and ashes. Looking for opposite branching can narrow down your winter tree ID to these two tree types, and then you can use other clues to figure out which one you’re looking at.

For ash, look for coarse branching with thick branches, as well as bark with a diamond-shaped pattern:


For maple, look for fine branching with thin branches, and variable (though often platy) bark with no diamond shapes:




What do I mean by “coarse” and “fine” branches? It’s easiest to explain with a picture. Note the thinner and greater number of branches in the maple stem (left) compared with the thicker ash branch (right).


Most ash you find in upstate New York and much of the northeastern US is white ash (and at risk from an invasive beetle, the emerald ash borer). Most maples you find are either sugar (hard) or red (soft) maple. Those two will be easier to tell apart in March, when signs of spring make identification easier. Stay tuned for that.

Want more tree identification tips? Check out our MyWoodlot tree ID resources here!

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