How are your plant identification skills? Are you wanting a little extra challenge? Have you ever been curious about a plant during the winter but couldn’t tell what it was? Whether you’re a beginner looking to spice up your winter hikes with a new skill, or seasoned in plant identification and looking to brush up on the basics, this blog post is for you!

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) buds

Getting to know the parts of a twig

Terminal Bud: The bud that forms at the end of the twig, after a full year of growth.

Lateral Buds: The other buds along the length of the twig.

Pseudo-terminal Bud: A lateral bud at the end of a twig where the branch has broken or died. It can be distinguished from a terminal bud by the presence of a leaf scar (see below).

Bud Scales: Pseudo-leaves that protect the vascular tissue inside the bud.

Lenticels: Dot-like pores that allow for gas exchange. Depending on the plant, these may or may not be visible.

Leaf Scar: A structure below the bud where the previous year’s leaf was attached.

Bundle Scar: Markings inside the leaf scar from where the veins of the previous leaf were connected to the twig.

Ring Scar: The scar from the previous year’s terminal bud.

Node: The location on the stem where buds and leaves attach.

Internode: The space between two nodes.

Pith: The soft tissue in the center of the twig.

Branching Structure

Opposite: Pairs of buds or leaves occur at each node

Alternate: Each node has only one bud or leaf. Plants can also have sub-alternate branching when there is an uneven spacing between nodes (see Hardhack below).

Keep an Eye out for These Natives!

Below are some common PNW native plants that you’re likely to come across on a hike, in a park, or at a Green Seattle Partnership volunteer event. Here are some photos and quick tips to help you with your ID. Click on each photo to view more photos of that species.

Opposite Branching Species

We’ll start with opposite branching plants, since there are many fewer of these. If you can identify that the plant has an opposite branching pattern, you can vastly narrow down your choices.

Big-leaf Maple

Acer macrophyllum

  • Multiple terminal buds with the largest in the middle
  • “V” shaped leaf scar
  • Mature trees are typically covered in moss

Red Elderberry

Sambucus racemosa

  • Very large buds, which are bright pink and green in the spring
  • Raised lenticels give bark a warty appearance
  • Spongy pith
  • Can grow to 20 feet tall at maturity

Red-osier Dogwood

Cornus stolonifera

  • Bright red bark
  • Buds are thin, black and elongated – they have the appearance of devil’s horns.

Snowberry

Symphoricarpos albus

  • Brittle whispy branches
  • Tiny, opposite buds that are greyish/white in the winter
  • White berries persist through winter and eventually turn black before falling off

Twinberry

Lonicera involucrata

  • Light colored, shaggy bark
  • Paired fruits are sometimes present through mid-winter
  • Can be confused with ninebark, but ninebark has alternate branching
  • New branching is square

Vine Maple

Acer circinatum

  • “Pig-hoof” shaped  terminal buds
  • Redish/green bark
  • Y-shaped branches

Alternate Branching Species

Beaked Hazelnut

Corylus cornuta 

  • Twigs have small white hairs and appear fuzzy if you look closely
  • 2-toned pinkish buds
  • Prominent zig-zag pattern along the twig, bending at the nodes

Black Cottonwood

Populus balsamifera   

  • Young shoots have angled edges
  • Tawny bark color
  • Large, white, visible lenticels
  • Sticky buds
  • Spear-shaped lateral buds

Garry Oak

Quercus garryana

  • Persistent brown lobed leaves
  • Short internodes
  • Buds are soft, fuzzy, and brown
  • Buds have a shingled appearance
  • Swollen terminal bud

Hardhack

Spirea douglasii

  • Grows in thickets
  • Buds are very small with white hairs
  • Subalternate buds
  • Persistent flower heads

Indian Plum

Oemleria cerasiformis

  • Loose branching growth habit
  • Bud scales are shingled and green-purple. Sometimes described as  “artichoke-like”
  • Light-colored, visible lenticels
  • First to lose leaves in winter, first to leaf out in spring

Oceanspray

Holodiscus discolor

  • Fountain shape growth habit
  • Persistent drooping flowers
  • Looser flower bundle than hardhack

Pacific Ninebark

Pysocarpus capitatus

  • Striped, shaggy bark
  • Twigs have edges that you can feel if you roll in your hand
  • Branches are “whip” shaped
  • Buds are appressed (pressed at side of twig)

Red Alder

Alnus rubra

  • Bark is smooth and often covered with white splotchy lichen
  • Buds are bright red
  • Persistent cones called strobiles (female)
  • Non-persistent catkins (male)
  • Can grow  up to 120 feet at maturity

Thimbleberry

Rubus parviflorus

  • Rigid stalks
  • Slight zig-zag at nodes
  • Plump, hairy buds, often hidden by the shrivled base of the season’s leaf stalk
  • Galls sometimes present