Tree Identification Guide With Simple Steps

Updated July 22, 2019

Ways to Identify Trees

A step-by-step process of tree identification can help you quickly narrow the many possibilities of the type of tree you wish to identify. You can begin by identifying the leaf and then move on to other characteristics, such as bark and the shape of the tree.

Is the Tree Evergreen or Deciduous?

There are two basic types of trees. The first are evergreen, which means the tree leaves are green year-round. The other type of tree is deciduous. This means the trees lose their leaves for part of the year.

Examine Type of Leaf

There are three basic types of tree leaves that include needle, scale, and broadleaf. You want to examine each type of leaf and compare to yours to better define the type of leaf you need to identify.

Needle Leaf Type

Some trees have acicular leaves that are needle-shaped. Pine trees are the most recognizable type of needle leaf trees. Some conifer species have needle leaves. Cedar trees have clusters of needle leaves.

Scaled Leaves

Trees with scaled leaves feature small green growths or structures that overlap each other and travel up the twig. Some conifers, such as junipers, have scaled leaves. The scales vary according to the tree species.

Broadleaf Type of Leaf

If you decide your tree is deciduous and is a broadleaf, then you need to determine if it is a simple leaf or compound leaf. This information can help you identify the leaves and thereby the tree.

Simple Leaves

There are two types of broadleaf that are defined by the blade. You can use this information to help you in identifying leaves more accurately. One is a simple leaf. A simple leaf consists of the stem and a single blade (flat broad part) that grows out from the midrib (line structure that runs center length of blade). A few examples of simple leaf trees include, black gum, black cherry, and some oak trees.

Compound Leaves

The other broadleaf is the compound leaf. Compound leaves feature the blade divided with several leaflets that grow along the midrib. Each leaflet grows from an individual stem. Examples of compound leaves include, oak, buckeye, hickory, walnut, and pecan trees.

Determine Leaf Shape

Perhaps the best tool for identifying trees is to go by the leaf shape. Not all leaves have smooth edges. Some leaf edges are also notched, jagged, serrated, or saw-toothed; it depends on the species and variety. The Orbicular (round leaf) is found in alder and aspen trees. Ovate is an egg-shaped leaf, such as American snowbell and red Adler. Elliptical is an ellipse-shaped leaf (American elm) and labellate are fan-shaped leaves (ginkgo tree leaf).

Heart-Shaped Leaf

If your tree has a heart-shaped leaf (Cordate) you can quickly narrow the possible candidates. This simple leaf is found in Western catalpa and various lime trees. There are other trees that may fall into this leaf-shape category. Start with those that can survive in your hardiness zone. There may only be a few possible trees.

Triangle Shaped Leaf

Deltoid is a triangle-shaped leaf, such as a cottonwood or poplar tree. Its name is derived from the Greek letter since the leaf is shaped like it.

Oblanceolate and Lanceolate Leaf Shapes

Oblanceolate has a narrow base that tapers broader toward the leaf apex. The bay laurel and magnolia trees are good examples of this leaf shape. Lanceolate is the opposite of an oblanceolate, such as crack oak and common osier.

Palm of the Hand

Palmately lobed leaves have three to five lobes. The name refers to the palm of the hand with the fingers radiating from it. Good examples of palmately lobed leaves are found in various maple, tulip and fig trees.

Kidney, Feather, and Spatula Shaped Leaves

There are other oddly shaped leaves that often confuse people, but if you know the name of the shape, it can help you identify your tree quicker. Reniform is a kidney-shaped leaf, such as Eastern redbud and Carolina basswood trees. Pinnately lobed leaves are formed on either side of the leaf spine, often called a feather shape. Oak trees have pinnately lobed leaves. Spatulate are spatula-shaped leaves that taper toward the base, such as water oak tree leaves.

Identify Type of Tree Bark

Once you've considered different leaf shapes, you should have a clear idea of the tree type. However, there is one way you can double-check your leaf assessment. You can compare the tree bark to the species you believe matches your leaf. Tree bark colors range from white to dark brown and the bark textures can range from rugged and peeling to smooth. If the bark doesn't lineup with the tree you've identified using the leaf, you need to re-examine the tree characteristics.

Determine Tree Shape

If you're still not positive that you've accurately identified the tree, you should consider the shape of the tree. Most tree species have inherent shapes. These range from spreading, round, conical, weeping, columnar, open, oval, pyramidal, vase, and irregular.

Fruit or Nut Bearing Trees

If you suspect your tree bears fruit or nuts, but don't wish to wait until it produces, you can examine the leaf shape, type of bark, leaf buds, shape of the tree and any flowering for comparisons. At some point, all of these characteristics can be used to validate or invalidate your tree identification assessment.

Follow Tree Identification Step-by-Step

You can use a step-by-step assessment to identify a type of tree. You may want to ask questions. For example, if you noticed any berries on the tree or anything unusual. Take notes as you move through the steps to help you eliminate mismatches and later compare to photos and examples.

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Tree Identification Guide With Simple Steps