- Leaf Type
There are three basic leaf types: needles, scales and broadleaf. Most
evergreens have needles or scales, while most broadleaf trees are deciduous.
- Leaf Shape
Common leaf identification shapes include ovate (egg shaped), lanceolate (long and narrow), deltoid (triangular),
and obicular (round). There is also the palm-shaped maple leaf and the
lobed oak leaf, two of our most recognizable leaf shapes.
- Bark Color
While many tree species indeed have gray bark, some
have bark that is cinnamon (mulberry), pure white (birch), silver (beech),
greenish white (aspen) or copper (paperbark maple) in color.
- Bark Texture
There are many variations in texture between different tree species, as
well. Bark can be furrowed (cottonwood), scaly (sycamore), peeling
(hickory), smooth (beech), shiny (cherry), papery (birch) or warty
- Bark Variations With Age
Often the color and texture of the bark change as the tree matures. This is
most noticeable on the trunk—the oldest part of the tree.
- Tree Shape
Some trees have a distinctive shape.
- Tree Size and Location
If you’re trying to identify trees species in a natural setting, you can
study the site.
- Flower Type
While there’s a whole class known as flowering trees (everything from
crabapples to magnolias), other tree species have inconspicuous flowers.
Either way, flowers can help with identification. First, consider the color.
Consider when the flower appears and what it looks like. Flower types
include single blooms, clustered blooms or catkins which are
dense hanging spikes that look like tassels. Many trees bloom in spring, but
some flower in summer or even early fall, helping you eliminate certain tree
species as you investigate.
- Fruit Type
When you think of fruit, you probably think of larger fleshy fruits with
seeds inside (apples, pears). But fruit is just a seed dispersal mechanism,
so there are other variations to consider. Think of the papery winged fruits
of maple, the nuts of chestnut, the acorns of oak, the catkins of willow,
the berries of hawthorn and the cones of alder. All can help you
pinpoint a tree species.
- Seed Comparison
The seeds themselves can help with more specific identification. Say you
have an oak tree but you’re not sure what kind. Leaf shape is highly
variable on oaks, even on the same specimen. A better indicator may be the
acorns. Get your hands on a good guide such as The Audubon Society Field
Guide to North American Trees (a mainstay in bookstores for decades). Then
compare the acorns to what’s pictured in the guide. You’ll find that acorns
can be small (black oak), big (bur oak), oblong (English oak) or barrel
shaped (red oak). Some are even striped (pin oak). The cap that partially
encases an acorn is also unique in size, shape and texture.
- Leaf Bud Arrangement
Buds can be helpful in identifying tree species in winter, when deciduous
trees are without foliage. Those at the end of a twig are called terminal
buds, while those growing along the twig are lateral buds. The arrangement
of these lateral buds can help establish a tree’s identity. Alternate buds,
found on elms, are arranged in alternating pairs on opposite sides of the
stem. The opposite buds of maple are directly facing each other on the stem.
And spiral buds whorl alternately around the stem, as seen on oaks.
- Leaf Bud Appearance
Some trees have distinctive buds, such as the sharply pointed buds of beech
and the small, clustered buds of oak, which are covered by protective
scales. Bitternut hickory is hard to miss—just look for the sulfur-yellow
buds when the tree is dormant.