Identification of the Most Common Hardwoods

A Guide to North American Hardwood Tree Identification

Autumn sunset in an oak grove

Achensee / Getty Images

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

Hardwoods have either simple or compound leaves. Simple leaves can be further divided into lobed and unlobed. Unlobed leaves may have a smooth edge (such as a magnolia) or a serrated edge (such as an elm).

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

Hardwood vs. Broadleaf

Looking up into red oak tree in North America

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Broadleaf trees can be evergreen, or they can persist in dropping their leaves over the entire winter. Most are deciduous and lose all their leaves over a short annual fall drop. These leaves can be either simple (single blades) or they can be​ compound with leaflets attached to a leaf stem. Although variable in shape, all hardwood leaves have a distinct network of fine veins.

Here is a quick leaf identification key of the common hardwoods in North America.

  • Hardwood: Trees with broad, flat leaves as opposed to coniferous or needled trees. Wood hardness varies among the hardwood species, and some are actually softer than some softwoods.
  • Broadleaf: Trees with leaves that are broad, flat, and thin and that generally shed annually.
  • Deciduous: Perennial plants that are normally leafless for some time during the year.

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 some of the most common hardwood trees found in North America, along with their scientific names.