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A guide to identifying British trees

A large beech tree in a woodland clearing at Clent Hills, with a touch of autumn colour in the leaves
A beech tree in early autumn at Clent Hills | © National Trust Images / James Dobson

Trees are a source of beauty and tranquility. They're also part of our natural heritage. So why not get to know them better? This guide will help you identify many of the varieties you can see at the places we care for, including some that are thousands of years old.

Common oak

If there's one tree many people will recognise, it's the oak, thanks to its distinctive leaves and acorns. That's why they've been the logo of the National Trust since 1936.

A close up of three acorns and oak leaves
Oak leaves and acorns | © National Trust Images/Hilary Daniel

Oak leaves and acorns

The acorns and indented leaves of the common oak are arguably the most recognisable of any tree in the British countryside. However, there are actually two species of oak native to the UK. While their bark and leaves look similar, pedunculate or ‘English’ oak typically thrives in the lowlands, while sessile oak is more often found in the uplands of the north and west.

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The size and shape of ash trees varies depending on their age and where they're growing but their distinctive leaves and seeds can help you to identify them. Sadly, the disease ash dieback is currently affecting many ash trees.

A close-up photo of green ash tree leaves and the long, thin, brown seeds it produces
Ash leaves and seeds | © National Trust Images/Laurence Perry

Ash leaves and seeds

Ash ‘leaves’ are made up of an uneven number of smaller leaf-like parts, known as ‘leaflets’ – usually seven or nine but sometimes more. Their seeds, also called ‘keys’, often hang in clusters well into the summer.

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Yew trees are one of only three conifers native to the British isles and can live for thousands of years.

View along the avenue of yew trees towards the banqueting house at Melford Hall, Suffolk
View along the avenue of yew trees towards the banqueting house at Melford Hall | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra


Yew are evergreen trees with short, soft needles. Female yew often have red berries in the autumn. Yew are found in woods and churchyards but rarely in fields as their foliage can be poisonous to some grazing animals.

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Beech and hornbeam

Beech trees and hornbeam can be mistaken for one another but there are some important differences when it comes to identifying them.

A large beech tree in a woodland clearing at Clent Hills, with a touch of autumn colour in the leaves
A beech tree in early autumn at Clent Hills | © National Trust Images / James Dobson


Beech bark is generally smooth and grey and the leaves shiny green and oval, turning orange and red in the autumn. Very little grows under beech trees because they cast such a dense shadow. Beech seeds and nuts are contained in a husk and together they’re known as beechmast.

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There are two native species of lime – but despite the name, they're not related to citrus trees.

A broad green landscape dotted with trees
Small- and large-leaved lime trees at Ilam Country Park in the Peak District | © National Trust Images / Joe Cornish

Small- and large-leaved lime trees

Our two native species are small-leaved lime and large-leaved lime, but they’re both quite unusual and we more often come across a nursery hybrid of the two, known as common lime. They all have grey bark and heart-shaped leaves.

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Alder are usually found near water or in wet ground. They produce catkins and berries that can help you identify them.

Alder trees and sheep by a river in Colby Woodland Garden, Pembrokeshire
The pastoral setting of Colby Woodland Garden, Pembrokeshire | © National Trust Images / Andrew Butler

Spotting an alder

Alder have rough, grey bark and may have clumps of young shoots at the base. Their leaves are almost circular with tiny serrations around the edges.

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Sweet chestnut

Familiar to many of us, there are three helpful ways to spot a sweet chestnut, depending on its age and the time of year.

Close up of the leaves and husks of a sweet chestnut tree
The distinctive elongated leaves and spiky husks of a sweet chestnut | © National Trust Images / James Dobson

Leaves and chestnut pods

The most distinctive features of sweet chestnut include their elongated larger leaves and the edible fruits (that you may have enjoyed during the festive season) inside soft spiny husks.

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Sycamore and field maple

They have distinctive and similarly shaped leaves and seeds but there are some key ways to tell sycamore and field maple apart.

Lone sycamore tree at Malham Tarn, Yorkshire
Lone sycamore tree at Malham Tarn, Yorkshire | © National Trust Images/Peter Katic

Sycamore trees

Given enough space, sycamore can become magnificent trees with foliage that has a cloud-like appearance from a distance. When trees are young, their bark is grey and smooth. It tends to become scaly and slightly pinkish with age.

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Leaf-spotter guide

For more help identifying trees, take a look at our guide to the leaves of 14 of the most common trees to see in the UK.

You can even print it out and tick off how many you spot on your next ramble through the woods.

View/download the leaf-spotter guide.

A path leading into a leafy glade dappled with sunlight, a shrub with pink flowers in the middle with blue flowers below

Trees and plants

We care for 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) of woodland, 135 wild landscape sites and more than 200 gardens, and have as many wonderful stories to tell.

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