What Is That? Learn How To Identify Illinois Trees This Winter

Jan 13, 2021

The University of Illinois Extension wants you to know your trees. They are offering a winter tree identification webinar series. Christopher Evans is a forestry and research specialist with the Extension and he is teaching the class. He said the classes are free and "totally open to anyone."

"As long as they're interested in learning about trees and willing to listen to me talk for an hour, they are welcome to take it," he said. "There is no age limit."

Evans said identifying trees in the summer is a "wonderful first step" but added that trees spend about half the year without leaves.

"If you don't also know how to identify trees in the winter, then you're kind of hamstringing yourself to only half the year being able to learn about these trees," he said. "It just helps if you have that full season -- that full-year ability to learn more about the environment."

And, he says learning about the trees in your community will help you learn about the environment that surrounds you.

"In many places, trees serve as kind of that linchpin -- they are that driver of these ecosystems," he said. "If you know the trees -- you know which trees are there -- you just have a deeper undertsanding of ecology and the natural world."

White paper birch in winter.
Credit Connie Kuntz

He gave an example of birch trees.

"If you're in an area where there's a lot of river birch, you know you probably have a lot of soil moisture and you may be in a lower environment," he said.

In this instance, a lower environment means southern parts of Illinois, which is where Evans is located. 

"And we know there are certain birds in the winter that like that birch. But if it's a paper birch, then you know you're probably in a northern environment."

Evans said he approaches plant and tree identification like a puzzle.

"You get a series of clues and you take these clues and put them together to try to come to some resolution, or an answer," he said. "And trees in the winter -- it's like a very hard puzzle."

Because winter naturally limits the amount of clues you get, you will only see a few very different characteristics during this season.

"You then approach those characteristics and put them together and try to kind of answer that puzzle."

And, like solving a puzzle, Evans said successful tree identifications are fun and rewarding. Plus, tree identification comes with the added health benefits of being outside.

There are three classes in all. Each online session has a a separate focus: 

  • Monday, Feb. 1 from 2-3 p.m. - Introduction and Basics of Winter Tree Identification
  • Wednesday, Feb. 2 from 2-3 p.m. - Winter Identification of Common Trees of Illinois
  • Friday, Feb. 5 from 2-3 p.m. - Winter Identification of Uncommon Trees and Difficult Groups

Evans said the first session will focus on "the basics" such as the characterstics used in winter tree identification, terminology and techniques and tools for identifying unknown tree species.

The second session will cover the characteristics used to identify common Illinois tree species.

The third session will focus on tree groups that are difficult to identify in winter, such as oaks and hickories. Evans will also talk about uncommon tree species found in Illinois.

Evans said if you register for the classes, you don't necessarily have to prepare. 

"We're starting with the basics," he said, "and we're building up from there."

Evans said the classes are filling up.

"It's really blown me away with how popular they've been so far," he said. "So there's a chance that they're going fill up pretty quick."

If that happens, Evans said the Extension will make the classes available on their YouTube channel.

"So even if they aren't able to register for the course, they can still get the material."

To register, or at least try to register, click here.