Guide to Tree Identification: Needles vs Leaves

Learn how to spot the most common trees by identifying their leaves and needles.

person stands alone on dirt path in middle of forest surrounded by undergrowth and green trees

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Why do some trees have leaves, while others produce needles?

This beginner's guide introduces needles and scaly and flat leaves to help you understand their identifying factors. With this information, you'll be able to name many of the common trees in North America.

Trees With Needles

evergreen conifer trees with needle leaves illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

Coniferous evergreens have foliage borne off the twig in the form of needles, unlike hardwoods that have bladed leaves. Needles can be found on a twig singly, in clusters, or in whorls. Conifers always retain some needles through the winter.

Trees With Clustered Needles

If the needles are bunched together, you can assume the tree is either pine or larch. Pine trees have clusters or bundles of two to five needles and are evergreen. These are especially common in the southeast and mountainous west regions of the United States. Pines have two types of cones per cluster: a small one to produce pollen and a larger one to develop and drop seeds.

Larches also have clusters of two to five needles but only produce a single cone per cluster. Unlike pine trees, larches are deciduous, meaning they lose their needles in the fall. North American larches are typically found in northern deciduous forests in the U.S. and Canada.

Trees With Single Needles

Trees with single needles are typically spruces, firs, cypress, or hemlocks. Spruce and fir have their needles attached individually to the branches. Spruce needles are sharp, pointed, and often four-sided. Their cones are cylindrical and hang down from branches. Fir needles are typically short and mostly soft with blunt tips. The cones are cylindrical and upright. These trees are common throughout the northern United States.

Cypress and hemlocks have needles that are flattened and attached to the twig with leaf stalks. While cone sizes vary, they are generally much smaller than other types of conifers and tend to form in tight bunches or clusters along the branch. Hemlocks are common in the Northeast, while cypress trees are generally found in the South and Southeast.

Trees With Scaly Leaves

evergreen conifer trees with scaly leaves identification illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

Evergreen conifers may also have foliage borne off the twig in the form of scaly leaves. These are cedars and junipers

Cedar leaves grow on flattened sprays or all around the twig. They're typically less than a half-inch long and may be prickly. Cedar cones vary in shape from oblong to bell-shaped to rounded but typically are less than 1 inch in size. Cedars are most common in the Northeast and Northwest, and along the Atlantic coast.

Junipers are distinguished by their spiny, needlelike leaves and berrylike, bluish cones at tips of shoots. The two main types are Eastern red cedar and common juniper. Eastern red cedar (which isn't really cedar) is among the most common trees east of the Mississippi River. 

Common juniper is a low shrub that generally grows no more than 3 to 4 feet high but can grow into a 30-foot "tree." Its leaves are needle-like and slender, clustered in whorls of three, and glossy green. Junipers are found throughout the U.S.

Trees With Flat Leaves

identifying flat leaves of deciduous trees illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

Deciduous trees, also known as broadleaves, have leaves that are flat and thin, and they shed every year. To properly identify deciduous trees, you'll have to examine their leaf structure. The two major kinds are simple and compound.

Simple-leaf trees like the sycamore have one blade attached to the stalk. Compound-leaf trees like the pecan have multiple leaves arrayed around a shared stalk. In both cases, the stalks are attached to twigs. 

The margins of the leaves are either lobed or toothed. Deeply lobed leaves, such as oak, have sharp protrusions with smooth edges. Toothed leaves, such as elm, look like the edges are serrated.

On some deciduous trees, such as maples, the leaves are arranged opposite each other along the twig. Other varieties, such as oaks, have their leaves arrayed in alternating fashion along the twig.

These are some of the most common characteristics to look for when identifying deciduous trees. However, with so many different kinds, you need a detailed guide to discern every type.