Trees hold a sense of wonder for those who love the natural world. And knowing the names of these majestic giants adds to the magic of the tree. There are many complexities to identifying trees but it’s entirely possible to match a name to the correct tree with a little insight.
Trees can be identified according to leaves, fruit, flowers, seeds, pods, bark, branching patterns, the shape of the tree, and the location of the tree. Trees are divided into hardwoods, softwoods, evergreen, and deciduous. By following the identification process, you can identify the tree.
This article aims to consider the fundamentals of how to identify trees. We’ll look at the various parts of the tree and how these give clues to the tree’s identity. Botanists have developed methods of describing leaves, bark, branches, and tree shapes that give us guidelines for identifying trees. We’ll also look at tree classification and other factors such as location, which can provide important information.
Structured Identification Of Trees
We’ll look at trees by first considering the parts, and then looking at the whole tree. It’s helpful to consider the various components first, as many of them are distinctive enough to give you an immediate identification without going further. If the individual parts don’t provide a quick identification, they’ll still you give valuable information that can eventually be collated to give a final tree identification.
The identification process will be in a step-by-step process as follows:
- Fruit, flowers, seeds, pods, and cones
- Branching patterns
- The shape of the tree
- Location of the Tree
Leaves And Leaf Type
Leaves should be your first stop when you are trying to identify a tree. The leaves of trees can be very distinctive. There are several aspects to leaves that need to be considered when identifying them:
There are three basic types of leaves: a broadleaf, a needle, or a scale. By identifying the leaf, you can identify the family from which your tree comes.
Leaf shape is a description of the overall shape of the leaf. The pointed end furthest away from the branch is called the apex, and the point of attachment is called the base. The petiole is the leaf stalk. There are many terms to describe leaf shapes, but we will stay with the terms most commonly used.
- Cordate: this is a heart-shaped leaf with the petiole coming out from the rounded ends of the heart and the apex being sharply pointed.
- Ovate: an oval-shaped leaf that is widest at the base where it attaches to the tree.
- Elliptical: the leaf is longer than it is wide and has tapered ends on both sides.
- Linear: a leaf that is the same width though-out.
- Lanceolate: this leaf is similar to an elliptical leaf. The length is more than the width, but it tapers sharply at the apex.
- Acuminate: this describes a leaf where the leaf tapers to give an elongated thin apex.
- Sagittate: the base of this leaf looks like the base of an arrowhead.
- Truncate: this leaf has a flat, square base.
Simple And Compound Leaves
Simple leaves have a central vein that bisects the blade forming a single leaf. A compound leaf is made up of a number of leaflets that attach to the midrib via a petiole.
The site where the petiole attaches to the stem is called the node. There may be one or more than one leaf attached at the node. The way leaves are attached at the node helps to identify the trees. For those of you who would like to study further: the study of the arrangement of leaves on a stem is called phyllotaxis.
- Alternate: a single leaf is attached at each node. The leaves are placed on alternate sides of the twig or branch.
- Opposite: each node carries two leaves arranged directly opposite each other on the twig.
- Whorled: this is when there are three or more leaves attached at a single node.
- Spiral: the leaves are attached in a spiral pattern around the twig. This is seen in conifers.
Leaf color is not always reliable as an identifying factor, but some leaves have very distinctive colors. It is worth considering the color, bearing in mind that the color of leaves may vary between individual trees, the composition of the soil they are growing in, and their location. Leaves of deciduous trees change color in the fall.
Some trees can be identified by their fall colors. For example, trees with red leaves in fall could be Sweet Gums, Oaks, Maples, and Sassafras. Orange leaves can be seen in hickory, beech, birch, and sycamore trees.
Leaf texture is sometimes more challenging to use as the texture assessment may be subjective, but there are some fundamental differences that can be used in leaf identification.
- hairy vs. non-hairy
- shiny or matte
- smooth or rough ( lumps or protrusions on the leaf).
Leaf edges can provide helpful clues when you are trying to identify trees. There are eight basic patterns in leaf edges.
- Entire; a leaf with completely smooth edges.
- Cleft: this leaf has divisions or notches that cut into the leaf more than halfway to the vein or midrib.
- Crenate: the edges of this leaf look like small round teeth.
- Dentate: the edges of this leaf also resemble teeth, but the ‘teeth’ are symmetrical, sharper, and point outwards.
- Incised: this leaf has irregular cuts with deep notches towards the midrib.
- Lobed: this leaf has gently rounded edges with notches that go less than halfway to the midrib giving the impression of several lobes on one leaf. An example is an oak leaf.
- Serrate: this leaf looks like the edge of a serrated knife. The tiny teeth all point towards the apex.
- Sinuate or Undulate: this leaf has a wavy edge.
Fruits, Flowers, Seeds, Pods, And Cones
Fruit and flowers can be helpful to identify a tree as they are usually quite distinctive. These are some features to consider:
- The season of the year that the flowers and fruit appear.
- Fruit, seeds, pods, and cones are all means of dispersing seed. It is helpful to look at the shape and color of seeds, pods, and cones. These assist in distinguishing between closely related trees. For example, acorns are more helpful in identifying different oaks than the leaves are.
- Flowers may grow as single flowers or in clusters. They may be identified by color, shape, the number of petals, and the arrangement of petals.
There is no easy overview of fruits, flowers, seeds, and pods as they can be as individual as each species. Once you have identified a tree family, use the flowers, fruit, seeds, and pods to narrow down your identification. Cones can be classified a bit more easily into shape. Cone shape and tree identification are discussed below.
It is important when inspecting bark, to keep in mind that young trees often have different bark to older trees of the same species. The bark of young trees is often smooth and unbroken without any of the furrows, ridges, and cracks seen on older trees. The color of bark can also change as a tree ages. The following are some of the different types of bark seen on trees to help you identify the tree:
- Peeling bark: bark can peel in horizontal sections such as in the paper birch or peel in irregular sheets such as in the American sycamore.
- Ridges and furrows: The ridges and grooves can be uninterrupted, as in the Northern Red Oak. They can intersect as in the White Ash, or the ridges can have horizontal breaks, such as in the White Oak.
- Scaly: in this patterning, the bark is broken into scales or plates. Black cherry trees have scales, while the pine, spruce, and black birch have thick irregular bark plates.
- Visible Lenticels: lenticels are the pores of the tree. Some trees have obvious pores that can be seen with the naked eye; they make up the patterns on the bark. Lenticels can come in a variety of colors and shapes. They can look like dark lines or be rounded splotches or even diamond-shaped marks with colors varying from black to yellow. The Black Birch has distinctive dark lenticels.
- Fibrous: this is bark where the furrows are furrowed, and it creates a fibrous appearance. An example of fibrous bark can be seen in the Eastern Red Cedar.
Bark can have distinctive odors, which can aid in identification. Some trees exude saps and resins, which can also be helpful in the identification process. Certain barks have very distinctive color bark. An example of this is the Fever-Tree in Africa with lime-green bark or the Tibetan Cherry Tree with cherry red bark in horizontal bands.
Opposite branching is when two branches occur precisely opposite each other on each side of the trunk. Alternate branching is when the branches occur on alternate sides of the trunk. Opposite branching is much less common, so if you see this feature, it narrows down the range of trees you need to eliminate from your identification process.
Tree shape can give valuable information when identifying trees. There are seven basic tree shapes:
- Columnar: these trees are tall, thin trees with a single trunk and upright branches. Italian cypress, Quaking Aspen, Red, and Sugar Maples are a few examples.
- Fastigiate: these trees are similar to columnar trees, but they have multiple stems and do not occur naturally. They are propagated in nurseries. An example is the Irish Yew.
- Open head Irregular trees: these trees have an asymmetrical canopy created by irregular branching. They have no easily definable shape and are usually good shade trees. Examples are Scotch Pine, Cherry tree, and Dogwood.
- Weeping: These trees have a dome shape where the branches sweep down towards the ground, sometimes even touching the ground. Example Weeping Willow, Weeping Mulberry.
- Round or oval-shaped: these trees have a single strong stem with a round or oval-shaped crown. Examples are Hackberry, Jacaranda, and White Ash.
- Pyramidal or Conical: this is the iconic Christmas tree shape. The trees have a broad base that tapers to a point. They have a single truck with horizontal branches. Conical trees are similar but slightly narrower. Examples are White Fir, Linden trees, and Pin Oaks.
- Vase: vase-shaped trees are the exact opposite of pyramidal-shaped trees. The branches grow upwards, with the narrow end at the trunk. Examples are the Golden rain tree and the Striped Maple.
Location Of Trees
The location of the tree will aid identification. Some trees are planted artificially in certain regions, but these are usually easy to spot. Certain trees will not grow in freezing climates or sweltering temperatures. These are good clues to use if you are trying to identify a tree when you are in one of these extreme climatic areas.
Classification of Trees
Trees have two primary classifications. These are:
- hardwood trees which are usually deciduous trees and broadleaf trees
- softwood trees which are conifers.
The classifications can be misleading because some hardwood or deciduous trees can actually have very soft wood – an example is Balsa. Some broadleaf trees can have leaves that are thinner than conifers. These are exceptions, though. As long as you keep in mind that, as with everything in the world, there are always exceptions, you can make use of this basic classification system.
Softwood Or Conifers
Needles and scales are leaf types that are found on conifers. If you see a needle or scale, you have immediately narrowed your search to only the conifer family. Trees in the conifer family include pine trees, fir trees, spruce, and larch which have needles. Cedar, juniper, and cypress trees have scale leaves.
Generally, trees with needles or scales are evergreen and can deal with harsh climates. The needles and scale shape prevent the leaf from freezing or drying out excessively. They can withstand snowfalls as the snow falls through the branches and does not remain on the leaves creating excess weight, which could break branches. The conifers belong to the Coniferophyta or Pinophyta class of trees. They have cones that carry their seeds. (The scientific term is gymnosperms).
When these trees shed their leave, they do not drop individual leaves. The entire leaf with the stem or twig falls. There are more than six hundred types of conifers, and these are divided into eight families.
When looking at the needles or scales, consider the pattern or arrangement of the leaves. Needle color and length are not a reliable means of identifying trees as they can vary amongst individuals and according to geographic location.
Arrangement Of Needles Or Scales
Pine trees – the needles are grown in clumps of two, five, or seven needles per stem. These can be said to grow in clusters, bundles, or fascicles.
Spruce and Fir trees – the individual needles are attached to the twig. These may be connected with woody projections as seen in spruce or attached via petioles (leaf stalks) as seen in hemlock, Douglas Fir, or Bald Cypress trees. Fir trees have a direct attachment with no petiole or projections.
Larch – the needles are attached in whorls.
Texture Of Leaves
Spruce Trees – have stiff, sharp needles.
Fir Trees – have soft, flexible needles.
Some species of conifers are deciduous – meaning they lose their leaves in the fall. Examples are Tamaracks, dawn Redwoods, and Larches.
Identifying Conifers From Their Cones
Once you have established that you are looking at trees in the conifer family, you should look at their cones to assist with identification. Conifers are classed as gymnosperms. This term means ‘naked seeds’ and refers to the fact that the seeds are open to the elements and can be blown away by the wind. Cones bear the seeds of conifers, and when they open, the seeds are exposed to the elements.
|Cedar||Barrel-shaped attached pointing upwards|
|Pine||Classic cone shape|
|Fir||Long cylindrical-shaped cones that stand erect like candles|
|Spruce||Cones are similar to Firs, but they droop downwards|
|Larch||Small oval cones|
|Cypress||Woody comes with a leathery appearance, shaped like big acorns|
|Hemlock||Cylindrical cones that range in length|
|Juniper||Woody, fleshy cones that are oval-shaped|
|Redwoods and Sequoias||Extremely hard, egg-shaped cones|
|Yews||No cones in the traditional concept of cones. They have round berries.|
Hardwood, Deciduous Or Broadleaf Trees
Deciduous trees lose their leaves during fall, giving magnificent fall colors that paint beautiful landscapes. The leaves change color due to the declining chlorophyll in the leaves as winter approaches. As the chlorophyll decreases, the green of the leaves diminishes, which unmasks the other colors in the leaves resulting in the glorious red, yellow, and orange hues. Not all broadleaf trees lose their leaves; some are evergreen. Examples are Magnolia and Silverleaf Oaks.
Hardwood trees are slow-growing trees which allows the wood to become much harder than trees that grow quickly. The most common hardwood trees in the United States are Oak, Cherry, Hickory, Beech, Birch, Elms, and Maple.
Broadleaf trees are classed as angiosperms which means ‘closed or hidden seeds.’ The seeds of most broadleaf trees are found in flowers, fruit, or pods.
To correctly identify a hardwood, deciduous or broadleaf tree, you must go through the identification process. There are vast numbers of trees in this group, and they do not fall into easily definable groupings. There are some easy shortcuts to quickly identify some common deciduous, hardwood, or broadleaf trees.
Aspens: have cordate (heart-shaped) leaves, whitebark with black markings which are visible lenticels.
Oak trees: look for acorns, lobed leaves, and dark, furrowed bark.
Maple trees: the leaves have a unique shape (most people are familiar with it from its appearance on the Canadian flag). Two leaves occur at the same node on opposite sides of the twig.
Ash trees: compound leaves with each leaf having four to six pairs of leaflets. Leaflets, buds, and branches all have an opposite attachment pattern. In mature ash trees, the bark ridges have diamond-shaped patterns. Ash trees have paddle-shaped seeds and are deciduous.
Fruit trees are some of the easiest trees to identify when they are bearing fruit. Most local people know the names of fruit trees. They can assist you with identifying the trees if you are unfamiliar with them.
Some Additional Tools To Identify Trees
There are several additional tools that can help you identify trees. If you are old-school, you can use various books to aid you. There is an immense number of books that may be segregated according to geographical areas. This will assist you by narrowing down the selection you need to consider.
The technological era has introduced a whole new approach to tree identification with apps that can be loaded on your phone to make identifying trees a lot easier. You don’t have to lug giant tomes around with you! Some apps require only a photograph of a part of the tree to assist you in identifying the tree.
One of the best apps for identifying trees is PlantNet which works on both Android and iOS devices. Many plant-identifying apps do not work well for trees. PlantNet caters to tree identification and even has a section to identify a tree by its bark. You can take a photograph or used a saved picture of a tree or part of a tree to identify the tree. This app is free, and you do not need to register an account to use it.
LeafSnap is another excellent app that allows you to identify a tree by taking a photograph of the tree’s leaf, bark, fruit, or flower. There is a free version of LeafSnap, but this does include advertisements. If you prefer an app without intrusions by adverts, then you can purchase LeafSnap Premium.
An excellent feature of LeafSnap is that scientists worldwide can automatically access the information you upload. This interaction allows for solid advances in studying trees, identifying the outbreak of diseases in trees, and noting the spread or decline in tree species. This app has some limitations: it can only be used on Apple devices, and it only covers trees in the North-Eastern United States.
When you are first starting out with tree identification, the process may seem overwhelming and something of a hit-and-miss affair. As you study the identification process and become familiar with the concepts and terminology to describe different parts of the tree, it will become increasingly easier for you to identify trees. Books and apps can be tools that assist you with your search, although both have limitations.
Trees are vitally important in our threatened natural world. Without trees, the world would begin to have life-threatening issues with the air we breathe. It benefits us greatly to have as many people as possible interested in trees, knowing the names of trees, being able to note locations and abnormalities. We commend you for your interest in trees and encourage you to go forth and discover, name, enjoy, and breathe the trees.