When it comes to identifying trees and shrubs, there are a variety of pointers that can help us. Of course, as the 4 seasons change, the available clues can change. But winter or summer, the position of the buds doesn’t alter.
Generally, the way in which buds are arranged on a twig is in one of 2 ways. They are either opposite one another, in many cases ending with a single bud, or they are spaced alternately with one on one side and then one on the other, ending naturally. Consequently, the position of buds is a useful clue towards identification, particularly during the winter months when no leaves may be present on deciduous varieties.
Of course, coming from buds as they do, leaves therefore find themselves arranged on a twig in the same way, either opposite or alternate. And this too can be invaluable. Not only do we then have the leaf to examine, but we can also see its relative position to its neighbour.
Be wary though, as there are still pitfalls to what may appear to be simple identification.
For example, in many cases, Maple trees have similarly shaped leaves which are a characteristic of the species. We all know the Maple leaf of the Canadian Flag. In the overwhelming majority of cases they have opposite buds, and so their leaves and new and old growth are also arranged in an opposite fashion.
There is however a tree whose leaves, to the untrained or unwary eye, appear to be exactly the same as a Maple. The only clue that proves that is not a Maple is that its buds are alternate and not opposite.
Like all pointers towards identification, you cannot and should not rely only upon a single clue. Trust me, it’s easy when we start out with plant identification to be so pleased that we have spotted a clue which seems to point to our plant being of a particular type, and then miss a clue which positively proves that it is not.
One last thing that I would like to say is this … Don’t rely absolutely upon the internet when it comes to identification. I have noticed as I have searched myself for photos that I could use to illustrate articles that I have written about plants that there are many instances of where the pictures in the galleries are not what they are supposed to be. It is only my experience which allows me to determine what is true and what is not. So please don’t assume that it is 100% correct.