EXTENSION CORNER: Tree Identification Tips

Laura Bailey, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Yates County Natural Resources Educator & Northwest Regional Director of the Master Forest Owner (MFO) Program

Identifying an oak from a maple tree is something that most of us can easily do, but when it comes to knowing a pin oak from a chestnut oak or a silver maple from a sugar maple, it becomes more challenging. Fortunately, with good observation skills and a tree identification book or phone app, you can start to identify the different types of trees around you.

Laura Bailey

Each species of tree has unique characteristics that can assist you in its identification. There are six primary features you should look for when identifying a tree: 1) Leaves or Needles, 2) Bark, 3) Twigs and Buds, 4) Size and Shape, 5) Flowers, 6) Fruits and Seeds. Depending on the season when you are observing the tree, you may not be able to see all these features, but you should be able to examine enough for identification.

If the season allows, start your identification process of with determining if the tree has leaves or needles. If the tree you are observing has needles or scale-like needles, you are most likely looking at a conifer tree. Most conifer trees are evergreen, keeping their needles all year, but a few shed their needles such as the larch. Most broadleaved or deciduous trees lose their leaves each year.

Needles can be scale-like, such as those of cedar trees. Needle shape can help identify what family the tree is a member of. Firs have flat needles, spruce have square needles, and pines have round needles. Arrangement, number, and length of the needles can help to identify the tree at the species level, such as distinguishing a white pine from a red pine.

Leaves are divided into two types: simple and compound. Simple leaves are whole, containing only one blade, such as an oak leaf. The leaf of a locust tree is considered compound, having many blades or leaflets attached along a central stem. There are also some compound leaves with leaflets radiating from a central point, resembling an open palm and fingers, known as palmate.

Other features of the leaves to observe include leaf arrangement, shape, and leaf margins or edges. Most trees have leaves that are arranged or attached in an alternate pattern on the stem. Some leaves that are attached opposite or directly across from each other. A few tree species have leaves that are attached in a whorled pattern, with three leaves circling around the stem at the same point. Use images in an identification guide to determine if the shape of the leaf is circular, oval, heart-shaped, triangular, etc. Viewing images in the identification guide will also be helpful when learning if a leaf margin is considered smooth, wavy, serrate (toothed), or lobed. Leaf color, textures, and veins are also helpful observations when determining the species of tree.

Bark can be observed during any season, but there can be significant variability, even among the same species. Relying on bark alone, is an unreliable way to identify a tree. However, when combined with observations, it can help considerably with identification. For example, you might come across more than one tree species with very similar leaves, but if you look at the bark, differences can narrow your identification. There are many different types of bark texture including furrowed, scaly, smooth, warty, papery, peeling, shiny, etc. Bark appearance can also vary depending on the age of the tree. The bark of a young maple tree is smooth, becoming rough and platy as it matures. Bark appearance can also vary along the vertical height of the tree, especially with age. Look up the trunk and into the branches for any changes in bark appearance.

Examination of twigs and buds, along with bark, is especially helpful when trying to identify trees in the winter or at the species level. For identification of deciduous trees in winter, consider getting a twig identification guide to assist with your efforts. Buds are arranged on the twig like leaves; alternate, opposite, or whorled. Also examine the patterns and texture of the buds and bud scales. Look at how the terminal bud, or the bud at the very end of the twig, is arranged or appears. Terminal buds can be very different among species in the same family. A leaf scar is left behind when a leaf detaches from a twig and this pattern is very specific to tree family and species. The patterns, textures, and colors of twigs are also important to observe. Some twigs may be thin or stout, greenish or brown, have lenticels, hairs, striations, etc.

Overall appearance and size and shape of a tree can be variable depending on site conditions. Shape, form, and size can be influenced by many factors, and a tree grown in an open setting versus the same tree growing in a forest, will have very different forms. When growing in open conditions, most trees have a distinctive shape, height, and size. Some common tree shapes are pyramidal, vase-like, oblong, columnar, and round.

Leaf margin shape can help in tree identification.
The same is true for patterns of leaf attachment.

Most trees can be identified using the above features; however, flowers, seeds and fruits can provide clues to assist if they are present during the season you are examining the tree.

Tree species usually display flowers in the spring, but there are a few that flower in the summer or fall. Some flowers are showy, such as the tulip tree and apple, but are inconspicuous and go unnoticed by us. If you are trying to identify a tree when flowers are present, make these observations: 1) is the flower a single bloom, clustered bloom, or catkins, 2) color of the petals, and 3) number of petals.

Tree fruits often look much different than what we normally consider a fruit. Apples, pears, and cherries are tree fruits we are familiar with and what we consider a fruit, but the samaras or “helicopters” of a maple tree are also considered a fruit. The seeds are housed within, just as they are inside an apple, but we don’t enjoy chewing on a delicious, juicy samara, and therefore don’t readily recognize these structures as a fruit. For conifer trees, the cone is the fruit and seeds are located within or attached to the scales.

For additional questions or assistance with tree identification, contact CCE Yates Natural Resources Educator, Laura Bailey at lb698@cornell.edu or (315) 536-5123 x4127.