Identifying Trees

Without any prior knowledge about tree identification, it can be pretty overwhelming when approaching our leafy friends without knowing what to look for. There are several baseline characteristics that botanists and tree enthusiasts search for when trying to put a name to a tree. These details would include: leaf complexity, leaf margin, fruits and flowers, bud or bloom timing, amongst others. In this post, we will be taking a look at 8 different species of tree, going through step by step how to identify them using theĀ Peterson Field Guide Second Edition: A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs.



Looking at the leaves of this first specimen, we can see that the leaves are simple in complexity and form in pairs on opposing sides of the branch. In this example, the leaves are toothed as well as lobed. This toothing be seen around the rigid edges of the leaves and the lobed shape is noticed by the distinct sections of leaf that protrude and give its shape. Since the twigs are not oak-like nor have a red-hairy property, this tree can be either a viburnum or a maple. Most people have seen maple leaves before, in this case we indeed do have a maple. Based on the widespread range of this species as well as the specific lobing and toothing, we are able to deduce that this is likely a sugar maple (Acer saccharum).



This next species has alternate compound leaves, with very distinct red clusters of buds. We first eliminate the criteria of thorns then, moving down the key in the guide, deduce that the leaves are toothed. The compound nature of the leaflets usually numbers quite high in a pinnate orientation. Twigs are furry and lack bud scarring. From this information we discover that we are looking at a species of Sumac. Amongst the species listed in the guide, there is only one that fits the description, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).



Taking a look at the next tree, we start with leaf complexity per usual. Alternate simple, easy enough. Round petioles (leaf stems) with heart shaped leaves give us some clues. Very obviously course toothed leaves, with dark brown twigs. The twigs and leaves are hairless, with some visible buds which are gummy in nature near the base of the leaf stems. From this evidence and using the field guide with illustrations, we can deduce that this tree is a Balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera).



This tree is an easy one to identify. The distinct bark pattern and color with a smooth texture is the first noticeable feature. It has alternate simple leaf complexity with 3-lobed leaves that are maple-like. It also produces spiky seed balls that are fairly unique. This tree is likely an American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).



This specimen’s leaf complexity is pinnately compound, with narrower leaflets. The leaflets are toothed and there is no visible fruit. It has gray-brown bark which extremely textured and scaly. The broad tree silhouette to top it off likely categorizes this tree as a species of Ash. The U-shaped leaf scars likely identify this ash as a White Ash (Fraxinus americana) as opposed to its green ash cousin.



This species is similar to one previewed already, with opposite simple leaf complexity and shallowly lobed leaves. The leaves give off serious maple energy, but the challenge this time to figure out which species. Sugar maple leaves are more deeply lobed than these leaves and has different bark. This bark is darker in color and more irregular. The slightly velvety-hairy underside of the leaves also point to a different type of maple. It would be safe to assume that this tree is a Black Maple (Acer nigrum).



English Sycamore (Platanus acerifolia).



This tree’s leaf complexity is alternate simple, as seen from the petioles connecting to the branches. The leaves are non-lobed and are coarse toothed. One distinct feature of this tree is the fruit it produces, which happen to be single, dark, round berries. The irregular textured bark with wart-like growths also contributes to the identification of this tree. From these observations, we can infer that this is a hackberry tree of some kind as they are common to the Northern hemisphere. Oval shaped leaves with asymmetrical bases as well as the dark purple berries common in late summer would place this specimen as a Common Hackberry (Celtis occindentalis).