Identifying ancient trees

A canopy of trees at One Tree Hill

We’ve spent years recording ancient trees in the places we look after so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come. Here's a handy guide to identify ancient trees at special places you visit.

Yew trees

Yews are evergreen with short, soft needles (female trees often have red berries in the autumn). The bark of older trees is a mottled dark reddish-brown colour and often flaky. Yews are found in woods and churchyards but rarely in fields as their foliage can be poisonous to some grazing animals. The 2,500-year-old Ankerwycke Yew is thought to be the oldest ancient tree in our care.

In summer, Box Hill is awash with fluttering butterflies - 38 species have been spotted here
A view of a Yew tree on Burford Spur on a bright summer's day, part of the Box Hill estate, Surrey

Oak trees

Oak trees can live for over 1,000 years. Old oaks are short and wide and normally hollow with rough bark. They often have dead branches still attached which can be compared to deer antlers. The indented leaves and acorns of oak trees are easily recognisable and have been our logo since 1936.

Oak leaves in September in the garden at Florence Court, Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland

Beech trees

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 a very dense shadow and one of the most interesting features of old beech trees is the way the roots seem to grow above the ground. Beech seeds or nuts are contained in a husk and together they’re called ’beechmast’.

Ancient beech trees in woodland at Alderley Edge, Cheshire
Beech trees in woodland at Alderley Edge, Cheshire

Sweet chestnut

The three most distinctive features of sweet chestnut are the elongated large leaves, the edible fruits contained in soft spiny husks and the way the cracked bark corkscrews on old trees. They’re also sometimes called Spanish chestnuts and were introduced to Britain by the Romans.

Visit Croft Castle, Herefordshire, to see this avenue of pollarded sweet chestnuts
The Spanish Chestnut Avenue at Croft Castle, Herefordshire

Lime trees

The three main types of lime found in the UK are small leaved, large leaved and a crossbreed of the two but they all have heart-shaped leaves and smooth grey bark. Really old lime trees can be quite short but have very large trunks often covered in a large number of young shoots growing around their base. They’re frequently found growing in lines having been planted to form tree avenues.

The UK is home to three main varieties of lime tree
The Ticknall Lime Avenue in May at Calke Park, Derbyshire

Ash trees

In woodland ash trees grow straight and tall but old ash trees in fields and parks are normally short and stout. Old ash trees also often have parts missing such as branches and bits of trunk so that the decaying insides can be seen. The bark is grey and cracked and ‘leaves’ are made up of an uneven number of smaller leaf-like parts (known as ‘leaflets’) – usually seven or nine but sometimes more. Seeds (also called ‘keys’) often hang in clusters from the trees well into the summer.

Alder

The native alder is usually found near water or at least in wet ground and the relatively few really old trees tend to be old pollards (trees which have had their upper branches pruned) in wood pasture. The bark of old trees is cracked and similar to oak and the leaves are flattened at the top (like a modern tennis racquet) and have serrated edges. Alders also have catkins and small fruits which look a bit like the cones of some conifer trees.

Native British alders usually near water or in wet ground
Pastoral view with sheep amongst the alder trees and stream at Colby Woodland Garden

Sycamores

If given enough space sycamores can become magnificent trees with foliage that can have a cloud-like appearance from a distance. They have a very distinctive leaf shape with five ‘points’ but these are slightly more rounded than the leaves of maples and plane trees and often have a red stalk. The bark is grey and smooth when trees are young but tends to become scaly and slightly pinkish with age. Sycamore seeds fall to the ground spinning like mini helicopters.

A mature sycamore at Plas Newydd, Anglesey
Plas Newydd, Anglesey, with the Menai Strait and Snowdonia seen from beneath a large sycamore tree

Field maples

Field maples are our only native maple. Although they can live for many centuries they often don’t appear to be old because they don’t grow very large and remain very elegant. Field maple leaves are like sycamore leaves but only around a third the size and with a less serrated edge. They also have similar ‘helicopter’ seeds. The bark on the main trunk and branches is light brown and flaky but the bark on twigs becomes corky with age.

Hornbeams

Hornbeams can easily be mistaken for beech trees but their leaves are hairier with more prominent veins and not as shiny. The bark is pale grey and smooth when young but develops a network of raised ridges as trees age. The trunk also becomes flared at the base rather than straight as trees get older. The seeds hang in distinctive clusters and each one has a three-point ‘wing’ to help it ‘fly away’ when ready.

Hornbeams can easily be mistaken for beech trees
Hornbeam tree foliage in autumn at Hatfield Forest, Essex

Video

Find out about the Ashridge Beech video

Join Brian Muelaner on his journey to discover the notable trees of the National Trust. This episode looks at WWII-engraved Beech trees from the Ashridge Estate.

Video

Find out about the Ankerwycke Yew

Join Brian Muelaner as he looks at the Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede in Berkshire.

Video

Find out about the Sweet Chestnuts video

Join Brian Muelaner on his journey to discover the notable trees of the National Trust. This episode explores the Sweet Chestnut avenues of Croft Castle in Herefordshire.

Video

Find out about the Tolpuddle Martyrs Trees

Join Brian Muelaner on his journey to discover the notable trees of the National Trust. This episode explores the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Tree in Dorset.