30 best British trees and shrubs and how to identify them

Leaves of Field Maple. Getty Images

Britain and Ireland have between 32 and 35 native tree species. Numbers differ depending on how many individual species of elms and whitebeam are included, whether hybrids are listed, and which species are counted as trees and which as shrubs.

‘Native trees’ (or indigenous trees) are considered to be those that arrived in Britain and Ireland through natural processes after the last Ice Age. Species introduced before 1500 are referred to as ‘archaeophytes’ and those introduced after this date are called ‘neophytes’. Many of these introduced species are now naturalised, which means they are capable of reproducing by seed in the UK, such as sycamore and white poplar. Some British trees are not suitable for gardens, as they grow too large, but some of the smaller species are ideal in native hedging, for clipping, or as specimen trees.

Identifying native British trees

There are several ways to identify common British trees, depending on the season. When trees are in flower, usually in spring, the timing, colour and arrangement of the blossom can offer clues. Once deciduous trees are in leaf, you can examine the size, shape and colour of the foliage. Fruits and seeds are also useful – the type of fruit or seed is a good starting point. Does the tree have nuts, winged seeds, stone fruits, berries, pods, cones, capsules or a fleshy fruit, such as an apple? In late autumn, winter and early spring, leaf buds, bark, location and the form of the tree can all help with identification.

Evergreen identification is more consistent throughout the year – leaves (or needles) and form are always helpful, while cones (in conifers) and fruits (in plants such as holly and box) can also be used to help distinguish different species. A good field guide or plant app. can be invaluable when identifying British trees and shrubs.

Types of British trees

 

Alder

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Alder leaves. Getty Images

This moisture-loving deciduous tree grows naturally in wet woodland and on river banks. Leaves are bright green and rounded, with serrated edges. Alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) produce dangling male catkins and small, cone-like female catkins that become brown and woody, and persist on trees over winter. Height: 25m

Ash

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Ash leaves. Getty Images

With its characteristic black leaf buds arranged in opposite pairs, ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is one of the most common tree species in the UK. It’s late to come into leaf and the foliage usually falls while still green. Each leaf is divided into three to six opposite pairs of leaflets and a terminal leaflet. Flowers without petals appear in tiny purple clusters just before the leaves emerge. Ash produces winged seeds called ‘keys’ that are dispersed by the wind.

Unfortunately, ash dieback has had a catastrophic effect in Britain since it was first recorded here in 2012. This fungal disease attacks and kills ash trees, and The Woodland Trust estimates that up to 80 per cent of the UK ash population will be destroyed by the disease. H: 30m

 

Aspen

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Aspen leaves. Getty Images

These beautiful trees in the poplar family have leaves that tremble in the wind, giving them the specific epithet ‘tremula’. Aspen (Populus tremula) leaves are small and rounded, with blunt teeth and flattened stalks that cause the trembling. They turn bright yellow in the autumn. The grey bark has diamond-shaped marks called ‘lenticels’ through which the bark can exchange gases.

Aspen produces catkins in spring, but can also propagate clonally from the root system. Individual trees live for around 150 years, but the oldest known clonal colony of any aspen species – an American quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) which has been named Pando (Latin for ‘I spread’), numbers over 40,000 trees, covers more than 100 acres and is estimated to be around 10,000 years old. H: 25m

 

Beech

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Beech leaves. Getty Images

The common beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a familiar sight in the British countryside with an impressive spreading canopy and beautiful lime green spring foliage that darkens as it matures. Beech leaves are oval with wavy edges and, once they have turned brown, they can persist on the tree over winter in a process called ‘marcescence’.

Beech produces nuts encased in woody cups in the autumn. Every two to three years, beech has a ‘mast’ year where trees produce nuts in abundance in order to overwhelm the animals that feed on them and ensure the germination of as many seeds as possible. H: 40m

 

Bird cherry

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Bird cherry leaves and fruits. Getty Images

Bird cherry (Prunus padus) is one of two native British cherry trees. This small cherry tree has alternate, oval leaves with serrated edges. White, almond-scented flowers in spring are followed by bitter black fruits in summer. Bird cherry is native to northern England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and East Anglia. Elsewhere, trees are likely to be planted specimens. H: 17m

 

Box

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Box leaves. Getty Images

This well-known evergreen is rare in the wild in the UK, although it can be locally abundant in areas of the Kent, Surrey and Gloucestershire. It’s often grown in gardens as hedging and topiary, along with varieties such as ‘Suffruticosa’ and ‘Elegantissima’. Box (Buxus sempervirens) has small oval, dark green leaves and green-white flowers that lack petals in spring. It’s been badly affected by box blight and box tree moth caterpillars in recent years. H: 5m

 

Crab apple

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Crab apple leaves and fruit. Jason Ingram

With a wide range of varieties ideal for small gardens, Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) is a compact tree with oval leaves, beautiful white flowers with a pink flush and small fruit in autumn. Trees are often thorny. Branches tend to twist and bark develops cracks as the tree ages. Pollinating insects love the spring blossom and the foliage provides food for the caterpillars of many different moth species. H: 10m

English elm

Wych elm foliage in spring. Alamy
Wych elm foliage in spring. Alamy

In the 1970s, Dutch elm disease killed around 28 million elm trees in the UK and altered the look of the British landscape forever. English elm (Ulmus procera) and small-leaved elm (Ulmus minor) – both archaeophytes rather than native species – were most affected. Wych elm (Ulmus glabra), a British native species, while still affected by Dutch elm disease, has fared better than English and small-leaved elm due to its more genetically diverse populations and the fact that it is less attractive to the bark beetles that carry the fungal disease.

These tall, broad trees have rough, toothed leaves with pointed ends. The leaf-base is asymmetrical, as in all elms, with one side overlapping the leaf stalk. Purplish-red flowers clusters in spring develop into seeds with papery wings. H: 40m

 

English oak

Close-up shot of acorns ripening on an oak tree in autumn. A bunch of acorns surrounded by oak tree leaves in sunlight.
Acorns ripening on an oak tree. Getty Images

The English oak (Quercus robur) is a magnificent, long-lived tree. It has green, lobed leaves with barely any leaf stalk. Trees produce slender male catkins and inconspicuous female flowers in spring. English oak is also known as pedunculate oak, which refers to the peduncle (or stalk) on the acorn cups.

Sessile oak (Quercus petraea) is the second of the UK’s two native oak species. Although similar to English oak, sessile oak can be distinguished by its leaves, which have longer stalks, and its stalkless acorn cups (sessile means ‘without a stalk’). H: 40m

 

Field maple

Leaves of Field Maple (Acer campestre)
Leaves of Field Maple. Getty Images

This native British maple species is common in hedgerows, especially in chalky areas. Field maple (Acer campestre) has small, opposite leaves with five lobes. The green leaves turn a glorious buttery yellow in the autumn. Small green flowers develop into a joined pair of winged fruits called samaras. These samaras can be distinguished from sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and Norway maple (Acer platanoides) samaras by their horizontal rather than angled pairing. H: 20m

 

Hawthorn

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Hawthorn leaves. Jason Ingram

With its small, lobed leaves, thorny branches and bright red autumn berries or haws, Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is common in woods and hedgerows across the UK. It has white, strongly-scented clusters of flowers which traditionally bloom in May, giving it the common name of May flower. However, climate change is affecting the flowering period of many plants, and hawthorn flowers have been recorded as early as March in some areas of the UK.

There’s only one other native hawthorn in Britain – the Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). The two species readily hybridise to produce Crataegus x media. Hawthorn is important as a foodplant and nest site for a wide range of wildlife. H: 10m

 

Hazel

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Hazel leaves. Getty Images

Hazel (Corylus avellana) is easily identified by its yellow lamb’s tail catkins in spring and clusters of brown hazelnuts in autumn. A common hedgerow and woodland tree, hazel has traditionally been coppiced to produce hazel rods, used for basket weaving and to produce hurdles for fencing. Hazel leaves are green, rounded and hairy, with double teeth around the margins. Though not as conspicuous as the hanging male catkins, female flowers appear in late winter. The flowers, which look like tiny crimson anemones, are clusters of 5mm styles (parts of the female reproductive structures) emerging from buds on the hazel twigs. H: 12m

 

Holly

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Holly leaf. Jason Ingram

This well-known evergreen is often grown in gardens for its prickly foliage, which deters intruders, and scarlet berries much sought after by birds and small mammals. Many garden trees are cultivated varieties of the native species. Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is dioecious, meaning it has male and female flowers on separate plants, so only the female trees produce berries. In the wild, holly grows in woods and scrub across the UK. H: 15m

 

Hornbeam

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Hornbeam leaves and fruits. Getty Images

With foliage that can be confused with beech leaves, Hornbeam trees can be found in mixed woodlands, hedgerows, parks and large gardens. Young trees have pale bark with vertical striped markings and their trunks are often twisted and ridged. Hornbeam leaves are green and oval-shaped. They have smaller, more pointed leaves with deeper pleats along the veins than beech leaves, and their edges are finely toothed rather than wavy like beech. H: 30m

 

Juniper

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Juniper needles and berries. Getty Images

Juniper (Juniperus communis) is one of only five British native conifers, which also include yew and Scots pine. It can be found growing wild in the uplands of Scotland and Wales, and on the chalk downs of southern England, but is considered vulnerable to extinction due to significantly declining populations. Juniper is an evergreen with grey-green prickly needles arranged in threes and female berry-like cones. These green cones turn blue-black as they mature and are best known for their traditional role in flavouring gin. H: 10m

 

Pussy willow

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Pussy willow leaves. Getty Images

Pussy willow (Salix caprea) is one of several native willow species growing in the UK. Easily identified by the furry male catkins which give pussy willow its common name, it’s a moisture-loving small tree often found on riverbanks and in wet woodland. The leaves are oval-shaped and hairy underneath, quite different from the elongated leaves of osier (Salix viminalis) and crack willow (Salix fragilis) – both widespread archaeophytes. Catkins appear in late winter and provide an important source of nectar and pollen for early pollinating insects, particularly mining bees and newly-emerged queen bumblebees. H: 10m

 

Rowan

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Rowan leaves and berries. Getty Images

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), also known as mountain ash, is an attractive tree with alternative pinnate leaves (divided into smaller leaflets, usually in pairs, on either side of the leaf stalk) with teeth on the upper edges of each leaflet. White spring or early summer blossom develops into red berries in autumn, which attract many bird species including winter thrushes and waxwings. H: 15m

 

Silver birch

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Silver birch leaves. Paul Debois

This elegant tree is recognisable by its silvery-white bark and the drooping habit of the tips of its branches which give silver birch the Latin name ‘Betula pendula. It’s a pioneer species, often establishing new populations on open ground and heathland. Small triangular-shaped leaves with toothed margins turn yellow in autumn before falling. Clusters of long, hanging male catkins open in spring. Silver birch is widely planted in gardens, parks and urban areas. It will hybridise with the UK’s other native birch, downy birch (Betula pubescens). H: 30m

 

Small-leaved lime

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Small-leaved lime. Getty Images

Small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata) is one of three native lime trees, alongside large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos) and common lime (Tilia x europaea) – a naturally occurring hybrid of the small- and large-leaved species. Once found in mixed woodland throughout the UK where it’s now less abundant, small-leaved lime has been widely planted as a street tree. Small-leaved lime has alternate, heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins. Fragrant creamy-green flowers are produced in summer. H: 25

 

Whitebeam

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Whitebeam leaves and blossom. Getty Images

Named for the pale hairs on the undersides of its leaves, whitebeam (Sorbus aria) is related to rowan and is a common street tree. It has alternate, oval toothed leaves and conspicuous red fruits in autumn. The Sorbus genus includes the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), a rare native tree which grows in old oak and ash woods, and many micro-species able to produce viable seed without fertilisation. These usually exist in small localised populations. H: 15m

 

Wild cherry

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Wild cherry leaves and blossom. Getty Images

Wild cherry (Prunus avium), also known as geum, is the larger of the two British native cherry tree species. Leaves are alternative and oval with forward-pointing teeth. Wild cherry can be distinguished from bird cherry by the position of flowers and fruits. Prunus avium has flowers in clusters of two to six, whereas the flowers of bird cherry are arranged along a raceme (an elongated stem on which flowers are borne on short stalks). H: 30m

 

Yew

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Yew leaves and berry-like fruits. Getty Images

Popular as a hedging and topiary plant, yew (Taxus baccata) with short, dark, glossy green needle-like leaves with a prominent midrib arranged in two rows on either side of twigs. Red berry-like structures comprising a single seed surrounded by the aril (the red fleshy covering) develop on female trees in autumn. Yew is highly toxic. Its native habitat is wood and scrubland, primarily on chalky soils in southern England. Many cultivated varieties of yew have been bred to grow in gardens and parks, such as ‘Fastigiata’, an upright yew, and ‘David’, a compact male variety with wide golden margins on the leaves. H: 25m


UK native shrubs

 

Blackthorn

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) with sloes. Getty Images.
Blackthorn with sloes. Getty Images.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is often found in hedges, scrub and along woodland edges. It has dark green, oval-shaped leaves with toothed margins. Pure-white flowers appear on bare, leafless stems in spring and fruit (the sloes) ripen to dark purple-black in autumn. H: 6m

 

Buckthorn

Buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus)
Buckthorn leaves and berries. Getty Images

This deciduous shrub is one of two British native trees in the buckthorn family – buckthorn or purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus). Purging buckthorn has thorny branches, oval, finely-toothed leaves with 2-4 pairs of side veins that bend towards the leaf tip, and black berry-like fruits in autumn. H: 10m

 

Dogwood

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Dogwood leaves. Sarah Cuttle

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is a small shrub often found in hedgerows, scrub and on woodland edges in southern England. It has vibrant red stems, creamy-white flowers in summer and black berry-like fruits. Dogwood has opposite, long, oval leaves that turn a rich red in autumn before falling. H: 4m

 

Elder

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Elder leaves and berries. Getty Images

With its sweetly perfumed white flowers in summer, followed by conspicuous clusters of purple berry-like fruits, elder (Sambucus nigra) is a common deciduous shrub of hedgerows, woodland and roadsides. Leaves are divided into five to seven leaflets, with pairs of opposite leaflets and a terminal leaflet. H: 10m

 

Guelder rose

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Guelder rose. Getty Images

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) is a deciduous shrub of woods, hedgerows and scrub. It has broad, three-lobed leaves that turn deep red in the autumn. Flat heads of creamy-white flowers open in summer with large outer sterile flowers and smaller fertile ones. These fertile flowers develop into red berry-like fruits in autumn, although some cultivated varieties, such as ‘Roseum’, only have sterile flowers and so don’t produce berries. H: 4m

 

Spindle

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Spindle leaves. Getty Images

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) has green stems and green, opposite, toothed leaves that turn brilliant orange-red in autumn. This poisonous shrub produces small, greenish-cream flowers in late spring and early summer. These develop into vivid pink fruits containing fleshy orange arils that surround the seeds. H: 6m

 

Wayfaring tree

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Wayfaring tree. Getty Images

The wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) is a characteristic shrub of hedgerows and woodland margins in the chalky areas of southern England. Its leaves are oval, finely-toothed and wrinkled with hairy undersides. Wayfaring tree has flat white flowerheads (similar to its near relation – the guelder rose), which develop into red berry-like fruits that turn black as they mature in the autumn. H: 6m

 

Wild privet

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Wild privet leaves and blossom. Getty Images

Wild privet (Ligustrum vulgaris) is a semi-evergreen shrub with small, dark green leaves, clusters of white flowers in summer and black berries in the autumn. Wild privet grows naturally on calcareous soils in old hedgerows and on the borders of woodland. Privet is a popular choice for garden hedging, especially garden or oval leaved privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium). H: 5m

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