Observing a Tree: Understand a Tree at a Deeper Level

Studying and Identifying Most Common Trees You Encounter

tall skinny trees seen from the forest floor with brilliant autumn leaves

Baac3nes / Getty Images

A tree is probably the most common, naturally growing or cultivated, living organism you will ever encounter on a daily basis. Most people I know have a real desire to learn more about a tree including looking at a tree in hopes to identify that tree. With this in mind, I have put together a list of things to think about and tools that will help you identify a tree.

Making Sure It's a Tree

Tree, fence and rocks.

Aimin Tang / Getty Images

It is relatively easy to determine a bird or insect from other biological groups. Not always so easy with some trees. Most people consider a tree a large plant but when is that plant actually a "tree-like" shrub or a baby tree seedling?

Here is a definition I like: "A tree is a woody plant with a single erect perennial trunk at least 3 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH). Most trees have definitely formed crowns of foliage and attains heights in excess of 13 feet. In contrast, a shrub is a small, low growing woody plant with multiple stems. A vine is a woody plant that depends on an erect substrate to grow on."

Just knowing a plant is a tree, as opposed to a vine or a shrub, is the first step toward it's identification.

Note Where the Tree Lives

USFS, Timber Type Index

You can eliminate a whole host of trees just by knowing where your tree is growing. All trees have native ranges and don't normally grow outside those forest cover types in a naturally regenerated forest.

Even cultivated trees in the landscape have boundaries or zones for optimum growth. These boundaries are called Plant and Tree Hardiness Zones and maps of these zones are dependable predictors of where a tree will or will not thrive.

Hardwoods and conifers can live together comfortably under certain conditions but often enjoy separate ecosystems or biomes. Knowing your native tree lives in either the Great American Hardwood or Coniferous Forest ecosystems can give you just a bit more information about a tree.

Most Common North American Trees

North American park surrounded by towering conifer trees and blue skies

Highlywood Photography / Getty Images

Worldwide, the number of tree species may exceed 50,000. With this said, there are just over 700 tree species native to North America and only about 100 considered commonly seen. If you can comfortably identify these common trees, you are ahead of nearly everyone you know.

Probably the first and easiest separation of tree genera are the deciduous (hardwoods with leaves) and evergreen (conifers with needles) species. These very different tree classifications provide you with the first division for identification.

Know a Tree's Parts

knowing a tree's parts

Courtesy of USFS-TAMU

Knowing how to sort through all the possible tree information to pick the important and eliminate the unimportant is your goal. Practice observing a tree's parts and patterns of variation for the most usable bits of information.

The size and shape of a tree can be highly variable and better used to identify the broadest of tree groups or genera. Your best information comes from twigs and leaves which usually have specific botanical patterns and shapes. You have a better chance using these markers to identify the exact species.

An All Important Leaf

leaf anatomy
Steve Nix

By far, the easiest way to identify a tree for a beginner is observing a leaf. The parts of a leaf is it's blade shape and silhouette, physical structure and blade composition. Using a good botanical glossary is important for definitions of unfamiliar terms used in leaf, twig and fruit identification.

I have created a quiz that tests your recognition of many common trees and the shapes of their leaves. Take these Match the Leaf with the Tree quizzes and learn from those leaves with which you are not familiar. This is an excellent way to practice tree leaf identification using a broad number of common trees.

Using a Tree Identification Field Guide and Key

older senior couple uses field guide books to identify trees in forest

DaniloAndjus / Getty Images

Tree identification field guides are excellent tools for identifying tres. The best guides have information on individual trees, have quality images, are compact and weather resistant. Here are some of the best field guides I've found on the market.

A tree leaf or twig key is simply a list of a series of questions that ultimately directs you through the process of identifying a tree. Find a tree, collect a leaf or needle and answer the questions. At the end of the "interview" you should be able to identify the tree.

Don't Forget Tree Images

basswood id

Charles Sprague Sargent

One of my favorite collections of illustrations of the most common trees found in the eastern United States comes from nationally recognized Charles Sprague Sargent. Although drawn well over 100 years ago this talented illustrator has created some of the best plates of tree's and their parts.

I offer 36 of his illustrations as flash memory cards to help you learn to identify the most common North American hardwoods. His detailed leaf and fruit will give the basic botanical markers for easy ID.

Please considered viewing my most popular tree and forest picture galleries. You will see trees in their most unique settings. These galleries take you from natural forests to beautiful botanical tree displays.

Dormant or Winter Tree Identification

Winter Ash Twig and Seed

Steve Nix

Identifying a dormant tree is not nearly as complicated as it might seem. Still, winter tree identification will demand some extra observational skills and practice to identify trees without leaves. If you follow my instructions and use your powers of observation you will find a pleasurable way to enhance your total tree identification experience.

Become familiar with a twig's botanical parts. A twig's bud, leaf and bud scars, pith and arrangement on a stem can be extremely important in winter tree identification.

Determining opposite and alternate arrangements is the primary first separation of the most common tree species. You can eliminate major blocks of trees just by observing its leaf and twig arrangement.