How to Identify Trees (Every Single Time)
Whether you’re a lover of trees, are passionate about the great outdoors and spend a lot of time in it, or are simply interested in learning more about the nature around you, it’s nice to know how to identify trees. It’s an interesting process, and it’s a hobby you can share with many people!
Trees are so common in our everyday life, and we don’t tend to think twice about them. But once you learn about these incredible signs of life, you can’t help but become passionate about them. Trees live a lot longer than plants, and their lifespan is not finite. Some species have been living for thousands or millions of years, and there are over 60,000 tree species.
One of the first things we teach children in schools is how trees are vital because they provide oxygen, which we need to breathe and survive. Our lives depend on plant life, not only trees but also grasslands, underwater vegetation, and more. That’s why it’s such a good initiative to learn to identify trees, which can be done in so many different ways.
Today we’ll provide a complete guide for beginners, and we’ll go through different methods.
What Is a Tree? And How Are They Categorized?
If you want to learn how to identify trees we need to begin with what they are. Botany defines a tree as a perennial plant that features an elongated trunk that supports branches and leaves. Perennial plants are the kind that lives for many years, unlike annual plants, which only last a season. However, this definition is a bit narrow, considering that the term “tree” can be used for any kind of woody plant with a tall trunk and branches.
Tree trunks are strong, and they have roots that extend underground, which collect moisture and nutrients so the structure can survive and thrive. The trunk supports the branches, which extend from the top of the trunk, and they divide into smaller roots that grow leaves. The leaves are responsible for collecting sunlight, which is converted into energy, thus supporting the tree’s development and growth.
It’s common for tree trunks to have a layer of bark, which works as a shield, and this contributes to the fact that the trunk is the strongest part of the tree. Every tree species will fall into one of the two main categories: deciduous trees and coniferous trees.
Deciduous trees are the kind that loses their leaves at a specific time of the year, usually in the fall. The leaves on these trees have an annual life cycle, which allows them to change colour, and most of them have broad leaves.
This attribute gives us the beautiful, magical fall colour palette we’ve all grown to love and appreciate. Most trees in North America, Europe, and countries with a mild climate go through this process during fall, while trees in more tropical climates lose their greenery in the dry season.
Coniferous trees, also known as evergreen trees, don’t lose their leaves, and their appearance never changes no matter the season. Most of these trees have needle-shaped leaves, and they can withstand colder temperatures a lot better than deciduous trees. Coniferous trees look stunning during the winter because while other trees look dead, these trees never lose their greenery. Now that we’ve learned more about trees and how they’re categorized, let’s get into the guide!
How to Identify Trees By Their Leaves
The most common starting point for identifying tree species is the leaves, so that’s where we’ll start today. Three main types of leaves make tree identification possible: needle-shaped leaves, broad leaves, and scales. As we already discussed, most evergreen trees have needle-shaped leaves or scales, while deciduous trees have broad leaves.
However, there are exceptions. For example, evergreen trees like Larch trees have leaves that lose their greenery and drop their leaves. Live Oak is another exception because it doesn’t have needle-shaped leaves but broad, elliptical ones.
Now, leaves come in many shapes and sizes, and they can help us identify tree species easily. For example, when it comes to deciduous trees, the leaves’ shape can tell us their species.
The most common types of leaves are
- Ovate: shaped like an egg;
- Lanceolate: long and narrow
- Deltoid: triangular
- Orbicular: round
- Cordate: shaped like a heart
- Palm-Shaped and Maple: very recognizable
To identify the leaf’s shape, you want to pay attention to its base, margin, veins, and tip or apex. Each aspect of the leaf will help you learn how to identify trees more easily, so you must become a bit more familiar with each aspect of the leaf if you want to use this as your go-to method for tree identification.
Leaves also have different structures; they can be simple and lack extra leaflets or be compound and feature three or more leaflets. Simple leaves are individually attached to twigs or twig stems, and compound leaves are attached to a single leaf stem. There are many variations of compound leaves, so they can be a bit confusing.
To help you out a little bit, here’s a list of the most common types of trees and a description of what their leaves look like:
- Oak Tree: Oak leaves have lobed leaves, making them easy to identify. The leaves feature rounded or pointed knobs around them. If you find round-lobed leaves, it means it’s a White Oak. But if the leaves are pointed, it means it’s a Red Oak.
- Maple Tree: The maple leaf is also easy to recognize, and it has a pointy, symmetrical shape. If you fold it in half, both sides should align perfectly.
- Cherry Blossom or Sakura Tree: The leaves on this tree have an oval shape, and they’re also toothed because they feature jagged points around the edges, which are thin and delicate. They also have a pointed tip resembling a teardrop.
- Pine Tree: Pine leaves look like thin needles, and they grow in bunches and produce pine snap, which is very difficult to wash off, so be careful when you touch them.
- Yew Tree: They look like small pine trees, and the leaves are also needle-shaped, but they’re shorter, flat, and rounded.
- Fir Tree: Fir leaves are also needle-shaped, but they’re flat and thick, and they also grow long and slim. They also grow in bunches, but they have a more cylindrical pattern, and they’re less fanned out.
- Dogwood Tree: The leaves on this one are thin and sheer, almost translucent, which causes them to curl inward a bit, and you can hold them up to the light to see their veins. They have an oval shape, but they’re not always perfect; some are bulkier than others and have a more rounded shape.
- Sweetgum Tree: These leaves are very familiar to maple leaves. The difference is that they have pointed lobes that resemble stars and the leaves are also thicker. They have a smooth, shiny texture as well, which is something maple leaves lack.
- Beech Tree: Beech leaves are curved and toothed, so they curl inward a bit between each tooth. The texture is smooth and almost like paper.
- Hickory Tree: The leaves on this tree are long and pointy, but they grow a little wider on the tip, so they resembled a raindrop. The underside is lighter in colour, they’re thick, and they also have protruding veins.
- Walnut Tree: Walnut leaves are long, and they have a rounded shape with pointed tips and jagged edges. Their underside is also hairy, and they grow in two neat rows.
How to Identify Trees By Their Bark
If you’ve checked the leaves and you’re still not sure, you can use the bark to identify trees. Tree barks have different colours and textures, which can tell you a lot about their species, and they also change with age. As the tree matures, the colour and texture will mature along with it, most noticeable on the trunk.
For example, the silver maple tree will go from a smooth texture and silver colour to furrowed and gray or black when it’s older. Tree barks have essential functions, such as getting rid of the waste and protecting the tree from external threats. Barks also have phloem, which transports nutrients throughout the tree by carrying food from the leaves to the roots. Barks have xylem too, which carries water and mineral from the roots to the leaves.
There are at least 18 types of texture, and it’s relatively uniform, so it can be a useful visual marker for tree identification. Now, identifying trees by their bark will only allow you to make a general classification. For example, you can determine if a tree is an oak or a pine based on the bark, but you won’t determine what kind of specific species it is. To do that, you’ll have to look at other features as well. So, the more you learn, the better!
To help you get a bit familiar with tree barks, here’s a list and a short description of some of the different kinds of bark textures out there:
- Smooth and Unbroken: This is common in young trees, but the texture will change as they age. A few species, such as the Red Maple or the American Beech, keep this smooth and unbroken texture their entire lifespan.
- Horizontal Peeling: Tree barks can peel in horizontal strips, which means that the tree is growing faster than the bark, so it’s pushing outwards. The pressure causes thin layers of the cork layer to separate and peel on some tree species, such as the Paper Birch, which peels in horizontal and curly strips.
- Lenticels: These are pores that are responsible for moving the oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the tree’s bark. All species have lenticels, but in some species, they’re a lot more noticeable. Lenticels exist in different sizes, shapes, and colours. For example, on the Yellow Birch, they appear as dark, horizontal lines. On the Bigtooth Aspen, they appear in a diamond shape.
- Ridges and Furrows on Rough Bark: When you find a tree with rough bark, its ridges and furrows can tell you a lot about their species because they’re always different. These are gaps in the outer bark, and they’re called rhytidome. For example, the White Ash tree features intersecting ridges and furrows, and the Northern Red Oak features uninterrupted ridges, and the White Oak’s go horizontally.
- Scales and Plates: Some trees won’t have ridges and furrows; they’ll have scales and plates, which are also rhytidome. Pine trees and Spruce trees have scales, for example, while Black Birch trees feature thick and irregular plates.
Aside from texture and colour, there are some tree species with special characteristics around the bark. For example, wild Honey Locust varieties feature large, red thorns around the trunk and the branches. These thorns commonly feature three points, and they grow up to three inches. The Hercules Club, also known as the Toothache tree, also grows tubercles around the bark that look like warts.
The smell of the bark can also help you identify a species, so you should consider taking a whiff as well. For example, the Ponderosa Pine has a vanilla or butterscotch smell. Some Pine trees smell of turpentine, Yellow Birch trees have a wintergreen smell, and Sassafras trees smell of cinnamon and spice.
If you want to learn how to identify trees by their bark, you need to consider everything about it for a more accurate read. Use your sense of sight, touch, and smell! Look at the colour, feel the texture, smell the bark, and pay attention to the details, so you don’t have any issues identifying a lovely tree.
How to Identify Trees By Their Shape
Many tree species have a very distinctive shape that’s easy to recognize once you’re familiar with it. For example, American Elm trees resemble a vase, and Sweetgum Trees have a pyramid shape. The habit of trees, meaning the form in which the plant grows, can change over time, keeping that in mind.
Tree shape is not a part of the tree, but it’s a distinguishing feature that can help you identify a species by providing additional information. One thing that you need to understand is that the shape of trees is not consistent and precise. However, with knowledge and enough practice, you can learn to recognize a tree by its shape and habit.
For instance, young trees will look different from parent trees. Trees that grow in the forest will also be different from trees that grow in other spaces. So, this means many factors can affect a tree’s shape, so you will need more information to properly identify it. That said, by looking at the whole, not just the shape but also the leaves, the bark texture and colour, and more, you’ll be able to identify tree species accurately.
Now, there are three main types of tree shapes. There are vase trees, which are tall and thin, with a pyramid shape at the top. There are also columnar trees, which are tall, thin, and straight. And round trees have an upright, strong trunk and grow in a dense, circular shape. There are many tree species within these three categories, but being familiar with the shapes will help you narrow things down when you’re out there practicing how to identify trees.
How to Identify Trees By Their Flowers
Flowers play a big role in tree identification because they’re very distinctive. When you’re looking at ornamental trees, best before they bloom, inflorescence will make it easy for you to identify the species.
The inflorescence is the pattern in which the flowers arrange themselves in the stalk. Of course, you also want to pay attention to the flower’s colour, shape, petals, sepals, pollination, etc. By taking all this information in, you’ll be able to narrow down the options successfully.
It’s important to keep in mind that certain species of flowering trees produce female and male flowers simultaneously. Some trees will do this on the same tree or separate ones. For example, Oaks and Birches produce both sexes on the same tree, but there are distinct differences. A River Birch’s male flowers are long and brown, while the female flowers are green and short.
To help you gather some knowledge, here’s a list of common flowering trees and a short description of their flowers to help you identify them:
- Pear Tree: The flowers on this tree are cream, white, or pink, and they feature five equal petals. Pear trees bloom in early spring, and the flowers cover the entire tree, which is just beautiful.
- Pine Tree: This tree is one of the most popular ornamental trees, and they don’t produce flowers, but they produce pine cones, which grow in the stem. Pine cones are iconic, of course, and they’ve become synonymous with the holidays.
- Maple Tree: The maple tree is another popular ornamental tree, thanks to its lovely foliage. Their flowers are red, orange, yellow, and green. They’re small in size, symmetrical, and feature five petals. The flowers grow in clusters, which give the tree a striking look when it’s blooming in the spring or winter.
- Oak Tree: This tree is quite popular in gardens, and it’s one of those species that produce female and male flowers in different branches. The male flowers are quite unremarkable when you look at them individually. They have a pendulous and catkin shape. On the other hand, female flowers are individual and erect, producing acorns when fertilized.
- Tulip Tree: These trees are well-known, and they produce yellow flowers in the shape of tulips. When you look closely, the flowers’ yellow colour has a greenish tint, and they have a bright orange center. They grow up to 2 and a half inches long, and they grow mostly at the top during the spring, so they’re difficult to see.
- Eucalyptus Tree.:This tropical tree produces yellow, pink, white, or red flowers, and they don’t feature any noticeable petals, which makes them easy to identify. Instead of petals, the flowers have fluffy filaments, which give the flower its colour.
- Frangipani Tree: This tree produces vibrant and fragrant flowers, which is why it’s so popular in landscaping. The flowers can be yellow, white, pink, or red, and look like a propeller. They grow in the terminal branches, and they do so in clusters.
- Hibiscus Tree: This tree produces flowers on a long stalk with a trumpet shape. They feature five equal pedals, and they can be yellow, red, pink, or white. The flowers are quite large, and they’re impossible to miss, making the tree a lot easier to identify when it’s in bloom.
Flowers are a great tale, and they can help you find out how to identify trees a lot faster as long as they’re in bloom. You need to pay attention to the shape of the flowers, their colours, their size, and every other detail so you can determine which species they belong to. Of course, this means you have to study and become familiar with flowers if you’ll be looking for ornamental trees specifically.
The good news is that studying ornamental trees can be a lot of fun because they produce stunning flowers and they’re all different, so it’s a feast for the eyes, and you’ll enjoy it if you’re interested in natural beauty.
How to Identify Trees By Their Fruit
When people think of fruit, they think of apples, oranges, pears, etc. However, you need to remember that fruits are seed dispersal mechanisms, so there are many different factors to consider when trying to identify a tree. For example, consider the papery winged fruits that Maple trees produce, the acorns that Oak provides, the nuts from the Chestnut tree, the Hawthorn tree’s berries, and so much more.
Fruits are a great way to narrow down a tree species, so they’re another great detail to consider. They are reproductive structures, so they’re a great way to identify trees. Doing research and become more familiar with the kind of fruits and the trees that produce them will help. Also, keep in mind fruits are not a very dependable factor because they grow at specific times of the year, so they won’t always be available for you to analyze.
General Tips for Tree Identification
Now it’s time to tie everything together! When you’re trying to identify a tree, you need to pay attention to the shape, size, and look of its parts. As you can see, we’ve broken it down, and we’ve discussed the most important parts and how you can use them to identify a tree species. So, it’s like putting a puzzle together.
Sometimes, figuring out how to identify trees is as easy as looking at their shape from a distance. But other trees require closer inspection, and when that’s the case, the first thing you want to pay attention to is the leaves. As we mentioned before, there are simple and compound leaves, so the first step is to identify what kind of leaf you have in hand.
The next step is to determine how the leaves branch. The majority of tree species feature an opposite branching pattern, which is when the leaves branch the same way on either side of the twig. There are also alternate branching patterns, which are common as well, and it’s when the leaves are staggered. Opposite branching patterns are less common, but they can be found in Maple trees, Ash trees, Dogwood Trees, and Horse Chestnut trees.
Last but not least, you want to take a look at the shape of the leaf. Check out the tip, the base, and the margins of the leaf so you can consider everything together and determine what kind of tree you’ve stumbled upon. You can pay as much attention to the tree bark, the flowers, the shape, and the fruits to gather more information and be certain about your analysis.
Learning How to Identify a Tree Can Be Fun
Learning how to identify trees can be an exciting and interesting process for people who truly love nature and the magic that comes with it. It’s an opportunity to learn about all the parts that make a tree and how different these parts can be between species.
The first thing you want to determine is the kind of tree you’re analyzing. So ask yourself; is this a deciduous tree with broad leaves or a coniferous tree with needle-shaped leaves? What about the bark? What colour and texture does it have? If it’s blooming, what kind of flowers does it have? What’s the surrounding area like? Is there water, fields, parks, woodland, or hedgerows? Ask yourself these questions and pay attention to details, and you’ll be able to identify any kind of tree!