UPDATED: Oct 19, 2019
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If you have an appreciation for nature and the outdoors, you may begin to wonder about the types of trees, birds, flowers, and other flora and fauna that you are seeing during time spent outside. Tree identification can be a wonderful way to enjoy nature with friends, family, or on your own. Learning to identify trees is a fun and interesting way to begin your investigation. You can start to learn to identify trees visually by examining leaves, bark, and more.
We can acquire knowledge about trees by examining them. We can learn what climates they are likely to flourish in, if they remain green all year or if they drop their leaves in the fall, and even how large or old they can grow to become. Often, trees will tell their own story of lightning strikes, floods, or harsh seasons. It just takes being able to examine the signs and learn to translate what we observe visually into tales of the trees.
Steps and Tips to Identify Trees
Trees can be identified at any time of the year, although it is easier in the spring, summer, and autumn when the majority of buds, fruit, flowers, and leaves are clearly visible. Conifers with their green needles are easy to identify at any time of year.
There are several ways that we can begin to identify a tree. The most common visual identifiers include:
- Twigs – Twigs and branches grow from nodes which form in various patterns depending on the type of tree. Learning to recognize these patterns may help you to narrow down the list of likely tree types.
- Buds – Buds will also grow in certain patterns depending on the tree type. The size, shape, and color of a bud may also be useful in identifying a tree.
- Bark – The texture, color, color patterns, and spots on the bark of a tree can be helpful for identifying what type of tree it is. However, it is important to note that the age of the tree may change how these aspects appear.
- Flowers – During the right season, the size, form, color, shape, and arrangement of flowers on a tree can be helpful in determining the type of tree.
- Leaf shape and parts of a leaf – Leaves are often the easiest way to identify a tree. The variety of leaves is extraordinary, and many are so unique that they alone can be used in correctly identifying a tree.
- Fruit – The type, form, color, and structure of fruit is also another major indicator.
- Tree form – The size, shape, and branching patterns of a tree are large indicators of type.
- Habitat – Most trees grow the best in certain conditions. Looking at soil. moisture, amount of sunlight, and surrounding nature may help to indicate what type of tree you are looking at.
- Leaf arrangement – How leaves are arranged on a tree can be important if other indicators are less effective.
- Cones – Whether cones are present or not present; as well as the size, shape, and form of any present cones, may help to narrow down the possibilities.
- Wood – The color and structure of the wood can be helpful in some cases.
Once you have collected your information about the tree, use an app, guide, or website to determine what type it may be.
- Discover Life: Trees
- University of New Hampshire: Identifying trees and shrubs in New Hampshire
- University of Tennessee Extension: The all seasons pocket guide to identifying common Tennessee trees
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Identifying trees by bark and buds
- State of New Jersey Department of Agriculture: Identifying ash trees
- Texas A&M Forest Service: How to ID
Tools and Apps that Can Help Identify Trees
Guide books are a great tool for identifying trees. You can find them in paperback form as well as for eReaders. If you are looking for something a little quicker that takes most of the work out of the search, consider an app or website with a searchable tree database.
The Arbor Day Foundation suggests using the “What Tree is That?” app. It comes with full-color botanical illustrations and is excellent for identifying common trees in North America.
At Columbia University, they suggest Leafsnap: An electronic field guide for using your mobile device to identify various tress by their characteristics.
Virginia Tech has their own Tree ID app, which they were happy to discuss in an article: Virginia Tech’s tree app tops at Google Play.
If you are still unsure, at the University of Maryland, they wrote a Gardening apps article that compared all three apps to highlight the key features as well as the limitations for each one. Each app has its benefits as well as its quirks, so definitely check out the article to see which one will work the best for you.
The Urban Forests Ecosystems Institute has an online database where you can list the features of a tree and see which ones in their database match. Visit the SelectTree: Search trees by characteristics page to begin.
The National Gardening Association also has an Advanced search by characteristics option for using their online database.
Are you interested in learning more about trees than just their names? The following are some great resources to consider if you would like to expand your knowledge:
The Nature Conservancy offers advice on identifying trees in the colder months in their Winter tree identification article.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has a list of helpful Tree identification resources worth checking out. They include field guides, classes, visual guides, worksheets, and websites.
The City of Eugene has an informative Learn about trees article that delves into the health, environmental, social, and economic benefits of trees. They discuss air quality, improved mental health, and more.
NASA has an article, What can trees tell us about climate change?, that talks about what the variations in the rings of a tree trunk can tell us about climate and weather changes a tree may have experienced within its life.