Hardwood Trees: Identifying the Most Common Species

Use leaves, fruit, and flowers to identify hardwood trees in North American forests.

majestic old oak giving shade to a spring meadow with the sun peeking through
makasana / Getty Images

Hardwoods, also known as broadleafs, are trees classed as angiosperms, plants with ovules enclosed for fruit protection. When appropriately watered on good fertile sites or fed in the landscape with a unique tree fertilizer mix, these ovules will rapidly develop into seeds. The seeds then drop from trees as acorns, nuts, samaras, drupes, and pods.

Hardwoods are often deciduous and have either simple or compound leaves. Simple leaves can be further divided into lobed and unlobed, and those can be classified further: Some trees, such as magnolias, have unlobed leaves with smooth edges, while others, such as elm trees, have serrated edges.

The most common North American tree is considered to be the red alder. It has oval-shaped leaves and reddish-brown bark. It can grow as tall as 100 feet and is found mainly in the western U.S. and Canada.

Hardwood vs. Softwood

Pine forest and meadow

Highlywood Photography / Getty Images

The texture and density of the wood a tree produces puts it in either the hardwood or softwood category. Most hardwood trees are deciduous trees like elm or maple, which lose their leaves annually. Softwood comes from conifer (cone-bearing) or evergreen trees, such as pine or spruce.

The wood from hardwood trees tends to be harder because the trees grow at a slower rate, giving the wood its greater density.

Common Hardwood Trees

common north american hardwood trees illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

Unlike softwood varieties, hardwood trees have evolved into a broad array of common species. The most common species in North America are oaks, maple, hickory, birch, beech, and cherry.

Forests in which a majority of the trees drop their leaves at the end of the typical growing season are called deciduous forests. These forests are found worldwide and are located in either temperate or tropical ecosystems.

Deciduous trees, like oaks, maples, and elms, shed their leaves in the fall and sprout new ones every spring.

Here are just some of the most common hardwood trees found in North America.


The mature ash tree (Fraxinus) often has pinnately compound leaves and grey-brown ridged bark. Green and white ash are the most common species of ash tree; these can be found in eastern regions of the U.S. and parts of Canada.


Beech trees (Fagus) can be identified by their dark green oblong leaves and thin grey bark. The brown fruit produced between September and October attracts small mammals and a range of birds.


The basswood (Tilia) can grow to be 80 feet tall and produce yellow flowers in the summer, giving it the additional names of the honey or bee tree. Basswoods have large, oval or pyramid-shaped crowns.


Birch trees (Betula) are some of the more easily identifiable trees because of their thin, layered bark with lenticels, or raised porous lines.

Black Cherry

The black cherry tree (Prunus) has smooth bark when young; it develops a fissured surface as the tree matures. In addition to its fruit, the black cherry produces pink and white flowers in the springtime.

Black Walnut

A deciduous tree capable of reaching up to 130 feet tall, the black walnut (Juglans nigra) can be found in the central-eastern United States. It has serrated compound leaves and furrowed, dark-colored bark during dormancy.


Cottonwoods are popular (Populus) trees. You can identify cottonwoods by spotting the cotton it produces. Other ways are looking for cottonwoods' triangular trees and yellow-green bark that turns gray-brown with age. These trees also produce clusters of catkin flowers.


The most common types of elm (Ulmus) are the American, rock, and slippery elm trees. While elms are originally from Asia, they span most of the Northern Hemisphere today.


A fast grower that can reach up to 130 feet tall, the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) has oval-shaped leaves and grey bark that is mostly smooth. Hackberries produce small drupes that are popular among wildlife.


The family of hickory (Carya) trees can be separated into the major shagbark, pignut, and pecan trees. Shagbarks are easily identified by their shaggy, peeling grey bark. Pignut trees have bitter, pear-shaped nuts while pecans produce sweet nuts that are cylindrical.


Holly (Ilex) trees are broadleaf evergreens with dull green leaves and sharp, long spines. Its berry-like drupes are consumed by local birds and wildlife, and its green-white flowers attract honeybees.


The black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) tree has distinctive compound leaves with up to 19 leaflets. This tree is native to the south-eastern United States and commonly found in other regions of North America, as well as Europe and Asia.


Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is easily identified by its large, showy white flowers. This tree is found in regions of the central and southeastern United States.


Maple (Acer) trees contain a tremendous number of species—about 125, although five are much more common in North America than the rest. The majority of maples are known for their simple leaves with three to five veins that branch off from the main stalk. Maples are most easily identified in the fall, when the leaf colors are the brightest: deep red, golden yellow, and a blend of oranges, depending on the species.


The oak (Quercus) genus also contains many species (approximately 400). These large trees live a long time, sometimes hundreds of years, and often have grey-to-black bark that is scaly or furrowed. They are popular among wildlife for their acorn production.


Sassafras is native to eastern North America. Its bark is dark brown to red and aromatic. The tree produces fragrant gold, yellow, or green flowers in the spring and blue drupes attached to red cups and stems.


Sweetgum (Liquidambar) trees are also called star-leaved gum for their characteristic leaves and the useful sap it produces. These are great shade trees found throughout Asia and the Americas.


You can recognize a sycamore (Platanus) tree by its bark full of smooth, irregular shapes resembling camouflage. These trees are mostly found east of the Great Plains.

View Article Sources
  1. "Fagus grandifolia." North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox.