Identifying Maple Trees by Their Bark and Branches in Winter [updated]

We like to plan out the maple tapping around Valentine’s Day.  For anyone new to sugaring on their land, the first step is knowing which trees are good maples for tapping.  If you did not identify them in the Summer when the iconic maple leaves were easy to spot, don’t fret.  It is absolutely possible to ID the maples on your land in winter so you can make your own syrup.

Before you start: Check out our complete guide for harvesting sap and making syrup

We published a complete guide to help absolutely ANYONE harvest sap from maple trees and turn it into pure, wonderful syrup.  The book is loaded with everything you need to know, including easy to understand, cheap strategies and detailed plans.  If you find this blog post helpful, get ready–the rest of what you need to know is in this book.

Check it out here:

DIY Maple Syrup book cover 6x9--drill_brown-boxes-with-white-text-KINDLEcover

Identifying Maple Trees by bark and buds

Summer identification is a piece of cake for most people. You just need to see the leaves and you’re done.  But how on earth can we do it without the lovely leaves in the winter?  Although it might be hard to tell at first, maple trees have two very distinguishing features: bark and branching patterns.

1. Identify Maples by the branches: Opposite Branching and Paired buds

Maples are unique from many other deciduous trees in that it buds in pairs and has opposite branches (branches come out at the same point on the parent branch on opposite sides),  like this:


Note: Not EVERY branch on a maple will have an opposite branch pair since they can break off or fail to thrive for various reasons, but you will begin to recognize the way a tree with paired branches look versus alternate branching with some practice.

2. Identify Maples by Bark and rule out other opposite branching trees 

Identifying opposite branching is only one component to identifying maples.  Let’s take a look at the bark.  Maples are diverse, and can be smooth when the tree is younger and can get rather shaggy as it ages.  Here are some examples from our land:


Those all look pretty darn different to me!  I confuse the bark of maple with oak all the time, but luckily oak doesn’t have opposite branching.  Its branches alternate.


This is why identifying the branching pattern is so important!

There are only a handful of trees with opposite branching, which is great news for us maple lovers.  If you can identify a tree has opposite branching and think it could possibly be a maple, there are really only two trees you need to rule out: Ash and Dogwood.  There are other trees and plants with opposite branching, but I don’t think they’re an issue since they either don’t look like a big tree or they don’t typically grow in the regions where syrup is made.

Rule out the Ash

The branches of an ash look quite different from a maple despite the similar branching pattern, and the bark is fairly easily distinguished from maple with its diamond pattern.  Usually one look at the bark and you can tell it’s not a maple.  A typical example of Ash bark is shown below.


Rule out the Flowering Dogwood

I’ve never found a dogwood near me, but the key characteristic to look for in winter is the bark. Dogwood bark has a cool blocky look that reminds me of alligators:

Flowering Dogwood Bark
Photographer: Charles Hoysa, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Original url: Shared under Creative Commons BY.


In summary: To identify a maple tree in the winter, you have to confirm opposite branching and paired buds, and then look at the bark to rule out the ash and flowering dogwood. 

Now get out those snowshoes and see how many maples you can find!  Sooner than you know it the days will be above freezing and the sap will be flowing!

You’ve taken the first step to making your own syrup, welcome to the club!!  We have the rest of the steps in our book, which is a complete guide to making maple syrup without spending too much on fancy equipment. Check it out here:

DIY Maple Syrup book cover 6x9--drill_brown-boxes-with-white-text-KINDLEcover

Happy sugaring!

15 thoughts on “Identifying Maple Trees by Their Bark and Branches in Winter [updated]

  1. Do you having a books to showing you which maple trees and a catalogs for the tools for the maple tree for the syrups and cookbooks to making it into syrups and sugar


    1. Hi! We don’t have any books but have learned about syrup by researching online and our own experience. There are many books out there and even more websites, but don’t be too overwhelmed, the process is not too complex.

      We tap all species of maple on our land, a majority of which are silver and sugar maples. Red maples are also supposed to be decent for syrup.

      We do offer some of our own resources, including a simple and inexpensive method for tapping trees and collecting sap:

      Once you collect the sap you just need to boil it down until the maple syrup boils at 219 degrees Fahrenheit (~104 Celsius) at sea level. Generally speaking, it will take 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon syrup (all maple trees produce sap with different sugar content so this number varies). Most of the evaporation is typically done on an evaporator in a sugarhouse or, in our case, over a fire outside. We use stainless steel chafing pans propped up on concrete blocks over an open fire to rapidly boil our sap. We try to avoid spending too much on equipment and supplies so we can understand the process and be more involved. When the syrup is getting close to finished, we run it through a filter (cheesecloth will work) and finish boiling on our kitchen stove until it is boiling at the right temperature.

      You can see all of our other posts related to maple syrup (some instructional, others more diary-like), here:

      If you have any more questions, we’d be happy to help! Happy sugaring!


  2. I’ve read several articles/blogs about how to identify a dormant maple and yours is the only one that made it simple and clear- thank you so much! Now I realize I’ve been tapping Ashes! Hahaha


    1. Hi! I’m fairly sure it is a silver maple in the photo, but please take this with a grain of salt–we moved and I can’t go check out that tree again to try and verify. If you have a similar looking maple and want to try to ID it, I know that a silver maple’s bark when shaggy can peel back and reveal brown underneath.


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