Tree Identification

This page contains a short description of the characteristics to look for when you are trying to identify a tree that you are not familiar with. If you are like me, when I started this, I had no idea what to look for to distinguish one tree from another. Of course, I notice their general size and shape, but I did not know what the distinguishing characteristics were. Most field guides organize trees by their leaf type and arrangement, but there are other characteristics that are important as well.

First, there are two general types of trees and they can be identified by the type of leaves they have: 1) Coniferous trees, or conifers, have needles (such as pines and firs) or scale like leaves (such as the cypress). And, 2) Broadleaf trees have normal flat blade leaves, although in a variety of shapes and sizes. After identifying a tree as a conifer or a broadleaf tree, you need to examine the bark, fruit, flowers, and especially the leaves.

Bark - The color, pattern, and texture are important when looking at the bark. The following terms describe some of the common textures you may see.

Needles - If it is a coniferous tree (has needles instead of leaves), determine the length of the needles and whether they are grouped or singular. When they are grouped, each bundle will be held together at its base by a sheath of scales.

Arrangement of Leaves on Branch - If it is a broad leaf tree, look at the arrangement of the leaves on the twigs. The leaves will either be directly opposite each other in pairs or they will alternate with leaves on each side of the twig, but not directly opposite each other. If the leaves are very close together, this may be very difficult to determine. Three quarters of all broadleaf trees have leaves that alternate on the twig.

Simple or Compound Leaves - If it is a broad leaf tree, determine whether the leaves are simple or compound. Compound leaves have multiple leaflets, which look very similar to leaves. The difference is in how they attach to the stem. Leaflets in a compound leaf join to a common stem and the stem attaches to the twig. In a simple leaf, the stem attaches to the twig and continues into the main vein of the leaf.

Shape of Leaves - If it is a broad leaf tree, determine the shape of the leaves. Are they lobed? Are the edges smooth or saw toothed? Determine the general shape of the leaves. Especially notice the shape at the base and the tip of the leaves.

Fruit - Fruit varies widely from tree to tree, and include fleshy fruits, berries, pomes (for example, apples), nuts, pods, and cones. When present, they can be useful in identifying trees.

Flowers - Flowers are usually only present for a short time. If they are present, note the general shape, form and color. Where are they on the branch? Are they in individual or in clusters?