How to identify nuts and seeds from 12 familiar British trees

Can you spot the difference between a sweet chestnut and a horse chestnut? Or a sycamore seed and a field maple? Our ID guide to 12 common tree species will help you this summer and autumn

Mighty oak tree in Cheadle Cheshire

Elm

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BNRW05 Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra). Twig in early summer with seeds.
Elm seeds – note the papery wing. Alamy

English elm seeds, surrounded by a notched papery wing, are produced in large clusters. Elm suckers, regenerating from roots of elms killed by Dutch elm disease, are prolific seed producers, but these are rarely fertile. Wych elm seeds are larger and germinate freely if sown as soon as they are ripe.

Sweet Chesnut

Ripe chestnuts, Castanea sativa, lying in their already open prickly hulls on the forest floor in the sun.
Sweet chestnut. Getty Images

Roast chestnuts are an autumn treat, but a good summer and autumn are needed to produce a crop of large seeds, especially in the north. The husk that encloses the seeds, which are flat on one side, is pricklier than a hedgehog and best handled with gloves.

Oak

Acorns and oak leaves (Quercus robur) in morning dew, Ashdown Forest, Sussex, England
English oak acorns. Getty Images

English oak’s acorns have long stalks, while durmast oak’s have none. If they avoid being eaten by mammals and birds, they germinate immediately, producing a root but no shoot until spring. Lucky acorns are carried away by jays, cached and forgotten, germinating beyond the shade of the parent tree canopy.

Sycamore

Winged seeds hanging from a European sycamore tree, close up. Autumn in Surrey, UK.
Sycamore seeds. Getty Images

These seeds are carried in pairs, with broad-tipped wings that sweep downwards. When they separate, they spin away in the wind like a helicopter, sometimes over hundreds of metres, and germinate readily, making sycamore a rapid coloniser of open habitats. The seedlings even thrive in deep shade.

Silver Birch

Autumn color on a white birch tree.  Catkins hang down from tip of branch.
Silver birch cone/catkin.

Its large numbers of tiny seeds are arranged in brittle catkins, which shatter when flocks of siskins and redpolls feed on them in early autumn. Seedlings grow best in association with fly agaric fungus – look out for red-and-white-spotted toadstools around mature trees.

Hazel nut

Hazelnuts
Hazelnuts – in and out of shells. Getty Images.

Borne in clusters, hazelnuts have edible kernels inside hard-shells that are prized by hedgerow foragers (although small mammels often reach them first). Wood mice nibble a circular hole in the nut, squirrels split it neatly in half vertically, bank voles gnaw off the pointed end.

Field Maple

"This is a traditional tree of UK hedgerows, where it grows quite slowly and trims well. Formerly used to make wooden bowls, where the swirling patterns of its growth rings are appealing.More photographs of the seeds of various trees:"
Field maple seeds – similar to sycamore but note the reddish tinge. Getty Images

Amid bright yellow autumn foliage, the paired seeds of the field maple have red-tinged wings that are smaller than in sycamore and held horizontal. These are distributed by the wind, but as maple is usually a small hedgerow tree, its low stature means seeds are unlikely to ‘helicopter’ long distances.

Horse Chestnut

Conkers from a horse chestnut tree (aesculus hippocastanum).
The most beautiful of our tree seeds – horse chestnuts or conkers.

Introduced from the Balkans in 1616, the horse chestnut’s large seeds entered folk tradition when the game of ‘conkers’ became popular in the 19th century. The prickly husks usually contain two lustrous, beautifully patterned seeds that soon dull when they dry. They germinate readily if sown when fresh.

Walnut

Walnut on a tree
The familiar, hard wrinkled walnut is contained within a green husk. Getty Images.

The soft green outer husk produces a dye that stains fingers dark brown when handled and smells of apricots when crushed. After extraction of the kernel, the hard half-shells make excellent small boats, ideal for a superior game of ‘Pooh sticks’ in a stream.

Ash key

Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) close-up of ripe keys (fruit), growing in woodland, Vicarage Plantation, Mendlesham, Suffolk, England, October
Ash keys – winged seeds of the ash tree. Getty Images

These large bunches of seeds resemble enormous bunches of keys. A few fall in autumn and germinate immediately but most remain on the tree all winter until torn off by blustery weather in March – these remain dormant in the soil for another year before they germinate.

Alder

A common alder (Alnus glutinosa) bears its woody, cone-like fruits.
Alder cones – a favourite of redpolls and siskins. Getty Images

Alder’s small winged seeds, which ripen inside black globular cones, are important food for small finches in autumn. Alder is a riverside tree, so vast quantities of buoyant seed are carried by floodwater and washed ashore on muddy banks that provide the moist conditions needed for germination.

Beech

Part of a beech tree with nuts in their outer burrs. Next year’s leaf buds are beginning to appear, even though it is only August.
The prickly outer husks of beech seeds. Getty Images.
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Seeds are shiny brown and triangular in cross section, with one or two in each prickly husk. Beech trees tend to produce an abundance of seeds in infrequent ‘mast years’, at which point large flocks of bramblings often congregate to feed on them. The seeds were once valued as ‘pannage’ to feed pigs.