Trees are some of the most important plants we share the planet with. They provide shade, oxygen, habitats for animals, and resources for humans.
Amazingly, there are over 60,000 species of trees. So, how can we know which one is which? There are many ways to identify a tree, and knowing these ways can help us learn and understand more about these important organisms we share the world with.
Identify by Leaf
One of the easiest ways to identify a tree is by looking at its leaves. Leaves are easy to see and find, and can tell you a lot about each type of tree. Some leaves, like maples, even have famous leaves! There are many categories of leaf types such as broad leaves, needle-like and cactus. These can help you narrow down what type of tree your leaf is from. Is the leaf heart-shaped? Smooth? Toothed? By answering a few questions about your leaf, you can generally identify the tree type easily.
- Arbor Day Foundation: What tree is that?
- Texas A&M Forest Service: Trees of Texas
- Discover Life: Trees
- Oregon State University: Plant identification
Identify by Fruit and Flowers
Another great way to identify trees is by investigating their fruit or flowers. All trees produce some kind of seed, nut, fruit, or flower. We all know acorns come from oak trees, but all trees produce something, even if it is not as well-known. Flowers are often the most visible clue to identify a tree. A dogwood flower, for example, is an easy way to identify a dogwood tree, when other methods may be harder. Fruit is another great way to identify trees. By identifying a fruit, like an apple, you can identify the tree.
Identify by Location
Trees can also be identified by where they are located. Trees exist in a huge variety across the world, but not all trees exist in all places. Trees thrive in different environments. whether a tree exists in a swamp or desert, mountain or valley can help you identify the type of tree you’re looking at. There are also different zones of temperatures in the world, and a tropical tree wouldn’t naturally appear above a certain latitude. Knowing what trees live in what environment can be a great starting place for identifying the type of tree.
- Mississippi State University and Mississippi Forestry Commission: Mississippi trees
- The American Chestnut Foundation: Tree identification
- The Nature Conservancy: Winter tree identification
Identify by Bark
Trees also have different types of bark. Bark is very distinctive to tree type, almost like a human fingerprint. No two bark patterns are exactly alike. Although different species of trees may have similar types of bark, each one has an identifiable type. Identifying trees by bark type is similar to the other types of identification. You start with a broad category and narrow down from there. This also allows you to see the subtle differences between tree types, which are very important in identifying trees.
- American Forests: The language of bark
- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: Identifying trees by bark and buds
Identify by Branch Structure
Trees can also be identified by their branch structures. Branches vary greatly between tree species, so looking at the branches can help you narrow down your tree’s species even further. Also, how leaves are arranged on the branches can help identify a tree type. Branch structure also includes branch strength. Some trees have stronger wood structures than others, and knowing how strong branches are can help you identify tree species as well as know which ones not to park under!
- Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute: Tree characteristics glossary
- Urban Tree Foundation: Structural pruning
- Penn State Extension: Tree diseases that create hazards
Identify by Name
Trees can also be identified by name. This is a little harder if you don’t know the name, but using the above techniques, you should be able to find your tree’s name! Trees generally have at least two names, a common name, like oak tree and a Latin or species name like Quercus acerifolia. Quercus is the genus name, and acerifolia is the specific species name. In this case, knowing the genus name means you would know it was an oak tree. Acerifolia are found in South Central North America and are a specific type of oak tree.
Knowing the name of a tree can be vital to identifying a tree. You wouldn’t look for Quercus acerifolia in Asia. By knowing what tree names are, whether the Latin names or common names, can help you identify and discuss your favorite trees! The Latin names can also come in handy when trying to distinguish between several similar varieties of trees, such as ash trees. Trees can also have regional names that vary from place to place, so knowing the Latin name or having the ability to look it up based on the tree’s characteristics can help you identify the specific tree, no matter what people are calling it!
To learn more, visit The Plant List: Browse.
Trees are vitally important for our planet. We share the earth with over 60,000 species of trees, and they provide oxygen, shade, habitats, and resources for us and the other animals we live with. Knowing their names and how to identify them is a sign of both respect and appreciation. Also, knowing how to identify trees can help you know more about the ways trees grow, where to find them, and how to care for them. Here are some additional resources on identifying tree types.
- Stand for Tree offers a great resource and information on our forests: Protect a forest.
- Trees are Good suggests activities that the whole family can do: Educational activities.
- The Tennessee Department of Agriculture discusses trees in their smallest forms: Tree seedlings.