Do you ever feel stumped when you’re trying to identify a tree? That’s not surprising since there are over 2,000 different species. There are many potential situations where you might be interested in knowing what type of tree you’re looking at. You might be walking in a nearby park or passing by a neighbor’s yard. New homeowners often find that, along with the house they’ve purchased, they have also inherited a handful of trees and shrubs that must now be maintained. Or perhaps you’re an existing homeowner or renter and find yourself peering out the window one day and thinking, “What type of tree is in my yard?”
We suggest one of two approaches: If the tree in question is creating problems for you as a homeowner or renter, then talking to a certified arborist is the way to go. More on that later.
The second approach is for those who are simply wondering, “What kind of tree is this?” or, “What type of tree is in my yard?” In this case, a field guide or mobile app is an excellent way to identify a species. Trees have many identifying features; some are unique, while others are highly similar across several types, leading to confusion. A good tactic is to take detailed note of the features described below and then refer to your app or field guide to do some detective work and figure out what type of tree it is.
The first clues for tree identification are usually found in the leaves, which is where many people naturally tend to look when scratching their heads over tree species. Trees feature three leaf types: needles, scales, and broadleaf. Evergreens generally feature needles or scales, like the ones that you see on a Christmas tree. Meanwhile, “deciduous tree” refers to broadleaf trees, which are usually much flatter and wider than what you’d see on an evergreen. Deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall, while evergreens do not—hence their name.
Leaf shape is also helpful when identifying broadleaf trees. The common shapes you might see are heart-shaped, round, triangular, long and skinny, or oval. Some shapes are so easily recognizable that you may not need to look any further for identification purposes; for example, maple leaves are very distinct, as are ginkgo tree leaves.
You can also consider something called leaf complexity, which divides leaves into either simple or compound types. A simple leaf is one with a single leaf, while compound leaves will feature “leaflets,” or groups of smaller leaves. Other features to take note of when examining leaves on a tree include the edges of the leaf, also known as margins, and the direction in which the veins are running along the blade.
Naturally, you’ll be hard-pressed to find some leaves to examine if you come across a broadleaf tree in the winter, when the branches are bare. Here’s where bark comes in as another handy feature that will provide useful information.
Bark varies depending on the age of the tree, its growth rate, and the surrounding habitat. Make sure to note the color of the bark—there’s more than just brown. Aspen trees feature bark that’s greenish-white, while beech trees are pure white. A mulberry tree has cinnamon-colored bark. There may be a combination of colors visible in the bark of the tree, or you may notice differences in bark between two trees of the same species. This is often due to age, which can change the appearance.
Another factor is texture, which also varies greatly across different tree types. Sometimes bark appears furrowed and rough, while other species are smooth. You may also encounter bark that looks and feels papery or even appears to be peeling.
Most trees flourish in areas that meet their needs for sun, moisture, and soil. They also have preferences for certain surrounding plant life, as well as animal species that might help the tree by eating the seeds and spreading them to other nearby areas. When identifying trees, consider the region in which you live or where you happen to be visiting. Examine the surrounding environment and consider how the elements have shaped the tree to appear the way it does.
The health of a tree is another way to detect whether that type of tree is regional and happy in this environment. Does the tree seem like it’s sad or even dying? It might not be a type that’s suited for the environment it’s in. If a previous homeowner planted a non-native tree and you aren’t happy with that, a certified tree professional can help you pick the optimal tree species for your region.
There are two main reasons to consult with a tree specialist: problem trees and invasive trees.
Problems related to trees include things like large branches that might fall due to rot or a root system that is affecting the foundation of your home, garage, or driveway. A tree that appears to be leaning or otherwise at risk of falling needs to be dealt with immediately by a specialist, to ensure the safety of your family and home. Tree experts will be able to identify the problematic tree species and make recommendations for the best future course of maintenance and care based on tree type. It could be that whoever originally planted the tree didn’t consider the needs of that species or wasn’t aware of potential dangers once the tree reaches a certain height. There might be a better option for a tree species that will thrive and not create issues.
Second, it’s important to be aware of whether the trees in your yard are invasive species. Some types of trees are non-native to the ecosystem and have the potential to cause harm to the surrounding environment. Invasive trees include species like the black locust tree, which uses its tall, thick canopy to block sunlight from reaching the other vegetation on the ground, and the Siberian elm tree, a hardy species that seizes ground and resources that other plants also need. Invasive trees may also spread their seeds through wind or animals, exacerbating the problem beyond your yard.
If you’ve used your apps, field guide, and websites on tree identification, and you still don’t know, always feel free to give Mr. Tree a call. We’re happy to help you identify the trees in your yard and support you in providing the best care possible.