Learning to identify trees can help in understanding and appreciating the various characteristics of wood from that in your barn door to your beautiful hardwood floors. Tree identification done in the field where you can take note of the habitat and surrounding vegetation as well as the tree bark, leaf, and fruit is easier than relying on memory. You may want to consider investing in a pocketsize field guide in either traditional book format or the electronic versions available as an app for your mobile phone, or iPad. Once you become familiar with certain characteristics, you can identify trees by their bark coloration and texture as well as by leaf and fruit types. Identifying a tree by either the common or the scientific name is possible once the name is known. However, unless they are part of a botanical garden, it is unlikely you will find a nametag on a tree you wish to identify.
Identify by Leaf
Learning to identify trees by leaf characteristics is perhaps the easiest. Though there is a wide range of leaf types, once you learn to pay attention to the basic characteristics, it is easy to begin identifying the various classes of trees found throughout this country and around the world. When you begin examining leaves on a tree in an effort to identify the tree you are investigating, pay close attention to these features. Is the leaf needle-shaped or broad? What is the leaf arrangement on the stem? Are the edges of the leaves smooth, rippled, or saw-toothed? Are the leaves large or small? Would you describe the leaves as shaped like a lance, elliptic, heart-shaped, round, or oval? What is the pattern of the leaves on the stem? Most leaves follow three common patterns. They are opposite each other on the stem, alternate along each side of the stem, or are whorled with two or more leaves opposite another two or more leaves. Needle-shaped leaves are usually found on conifers or softwood trees such as pines and cedars while broad leaf types are on hardwood or fruit trees.
Identify by Fruit
While knowing the type of fruit each tree produces is helpful in tree identification, fruit, seeds, pods, or cones are not always present. Still, when there is fruit present on a tree, it is easier to identify. While the term fruit may bring to mind images of apples, oranges, or pears, there are other types of seed-bearing fruit on trees that may be either edible or non-edible. All seed bearing types are useful in tree identification. Pods, nuts, cones, or some types of fruit you may not have immediately considered. Other fruit include fleshy drup (cherries), samara, or winged seed such as elm or ash, bur-covered nuts such as is found in beech trees, and other multi-fruit arrangements in berry-like clusters. Learning to identify the various types of fruit and the reproductive characteristics of trees can help identify the tree species. The species will be part of the scientific name of the tree and when you have access to the name of a tree, you can begin to identify the best purpose, use, or application for the wood or fruit from a particular tree.
Identify by Name
Attempting to identify a tree simply by its name is not as easy as it may seem. All trees have both common and scientific names. Scientific names are the Latin names scientists give any living thing including trees. The scientific names consist of the genus and the species. These two-part Latin names never change and foresters, scientists, and botanists worldwide can identify a tree from its scientific name in any language. A tree may have a common name in one region of the country and another common name is other regions of the country. For example, the scientific name for a sweetgum tree is Liquidambar styraciflua. The common sweetgum tree may also be called a star-leaf gum, bilsted, alligator-wood, gum maple, sapgum, or redgum. With over 12-thousand species of trees in the United States, the list of common names for these trees can seem endless! Still, learning to identify trees is a pastime many enjoy. There are many resources available in traditional print and online to help you get started. Your local forest extension service is a valuable resource and they may recommend literature or even conduct field trips to identify trees in your area.
- Tree Identification Tool
- Identify Trees By Leaf
- Tree Leaf Identification
- A Guide to Hardwood Trees in the Northeast
- Identification of Butternuts and Butternut Hybrids (PDF)
- Identifying Oregon’s Common Trees (PDF)
- Tree Names Both Common & Scientific
- Know Your Trees (PDF)
- Identifying Loblolly Pine and Four Competing Hardwoods (PDF)
- Identifying Timber (PDF)
- Tree Encyclopedia
- Leafsnap-Electronic Tree Field Guide
- Natural History Museum: Tree Identification Guides
- Identifying Oak Trees in Tennessee (PDF)
- White Oak Tree Identification
- Recreational and Urban Tree Identification Tool