Do you need help with tree identification?
Imagine you are walking in your local park on a beautifully sunny summer afternoon. Your path leads you through the grass to an old, mossy tree with many branches reaching at angles into the sky above. Large, broad leaves create a deep shade and a filtered green light below. You look at this magnificent natural sculpture and ask yourself, what kind of tree is this? How do you get started with learning tree identification? It can seem like such an overwhelming prospect, with over 100,000 species on the planet!
Tree identification is most easily done if you look at the parts of a tree in front of you, and using them, look up the tree in a field guide or reference book. Identifying trees is a vital skill to know for wilderness survival, as trees provide a great deal of assistance when for instance, making shelters, fires, tools and even potentially clothing. Trees were held in great respect around the world by indigenous peoples and continue to be important to many for all the gifts that they provide.You can break down tree identification most easily into its physical parts: leaf, flower, fruit/cone/seed, branch type, bark, and crown form.
Let us start with the leaf as we focus on tree identification. The leaves of trees vary widely from one species to another. Ask yourself the following questions:
Leaves can tell you a great deal about a tree including what family it belongs to, how it is adapted to where it is native, what species it is and more things that help with tree identification. But sometimes using the leaves alone is not enough to help you with identifying trees. The next part to look at to help you out is the flower.
Many trees only flower at a particular time during the year and therefore, using flowers for identification can be more challenging. Even still, looking at the flowers when they are available can be tremendously helpful. Here are some details for you to look at and think about when you see them:
After you have checked the tree for flowers, take a look around for the fruit or nut. Some trees will have a period of overlap when flowers and fruits will appear on the trees at the same time, but generally this is only temporary. Fruits and nuts can be major features in tree identification for certain species. Here are some things for you to look for when practicing tree identification:
Some trees produce fruits that do not resemble anything you might pick up at a fruit stand or grocery store. For instance, some trees produce seed pods not unlike peas. Others might have fruits that are just a big cluster of seeds stuck together in a string or a sphere shape. Next let’s take a look at the bigger picture.
When you look at the branches of a tree, you can tell a lot about its life and use them in tree identification, especially in the wintertime. Desert trees tend to have short, gnarled branches while trees in moisture areas have longer, more tapered branches in general. There are several things to keep an eye out for while noticing the branches of a tree:
Next, look at an even larger part of the tree: the bark of the main parts of the tree. Look at the bark, its texture and whether or not something is growing on the bark. Here are some things to keep an eye out for:
Finally, it can help you to look at the trees overall shape and color.
So now that you have some tools to help you practice tree identification, let’s go back to our initial encounter with the mossy tree we met earlier. Let us run through the details and see what we get, starting with the leaves.
Leaves: you notice the leaves are large, broad, with 5 lobes and deep indentations and a long stem that attaches them to the branch
Flowers: Looking around, you don’t see any flowers. You remember that it is late summer and most trees in this region flower in spring.
Fruit: Though you don’t see any typical, edible looking fruit you do see these winged seeds. They hang in paired clusters near the branch tips.
Branches: They show a characteristic pattern of branching in opposites.
Bark: Most of this beautiful tree is covered in a thick, varied blanket of moss. Though it is hard to see the actual bark of the tree on most of the trunk, you see a spot light up by a spot of sunlight. The trunk is grayish, with long, vertical ridges of raised bark and appears thicker where the tree divides into multiple trunks.
Crown Form: The overall form of the tree is immense, column-like, starting at ground level with a single mossy trunk. As your eyes move upward you can see the trunk divide into 2 main trunks.
So, you pull out your trusty local nature field guide and look into the trees section. Using the details you observed, you know that it has to be some kind of maple. Maples have palmate deciduous leaves and winged seeds. Since you know you are in the Pacific Northwest, you see there are really mainly 3 maples species in the region. You know that the leaves on this tree are very large, some over 10 inches across. Along with the trees size, the girth of its trunk and its crown form you determine that it cannot be vine maple (Acer circinatum) or Doulgas' maple (Acer Glabrum). Through process of observation and elimation, you determine the tree is the big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)!
Now that you have learned to use these key features for identifying trees, you can go out and practice your identification skills.
By the way, when you're out foraging for wild plants and mushrooms, it's important to know how to stay safe in the outdoors, especially if you were to get lost. Right now you can get a free copy of our mini survival guide here, where you'll discover six key strategies for outdoor emergencies, plus often-overlooked survival tips.
About the Author: Filip Tkaczyk is a periodic guest teacher at Alderleaf. He also wrote the field guide Tracks & Sign of Reptiles & Amphibians. Learn more about Filip Tkaczyk.