Best Methods For Identifying Tree Species
Honestly, there is no single method when trying to identify tree species, but some methods are more reliable than others. I'm referring to the shapes of leaves, but it's always a good idea to cross reference with other traits because even that can be tricky.
Leaves: The shape of leaves is a more reliable source than the color and size of leaves. Also, the edges of the leaves, whether serrated or smooth, provide a solid clue, as well as how they are attached along the branch i.e. staggered alternately along the branch or opposite like the shape of a cross or the plus sign.
- Opposites are maple and ash.
- Alternates are oak, hickory, yellow poplar, birch, beech, elm, cherry, and sycamore (a type of maple).
- Whorled (less common) leaf attachment is where three or more leaves attach at each point or node on the stem, typically pines.
Size and Form: This can be tricky when a tree is crowded in forest stands and forced to reach for the light. If the tree is allowed to grow in an open field or yard, it is easier to identify; and size of the tree varies with age.
Bark: Usually this is the second best way to identify trees and the only way during winter months. When observing bark, experts use a combination of texture, patterns and colors to identify trees. This can be tricky and sometimes frustrating to the novice observer because the bark of many species look very similar while others have very undeniably defining features.
Fruit and Buds: Are yet another way to cross reference when a particular tree identity is in question. The only problem is the appearance of buds or fruit production can be short lived; and fruit can be non existent when certain trees don't produce fruit every year. Also, many trees don't develop fruit such as nuts and acorns until the tree has reached a certain age of maturity, sometimes up to 25 years.
Flower: This is another way to cross reference tree identity, but again, the flowering season is short lived.
Michigan Trees Featured (in order)
- Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple
- Black Oak, Red Oak
- Cottonwood (Poplar)
- Quaking Aspen
- Paper Birch
- Yellow Tulip Poplar
- White Ash
- Black Cherry
- American Beech.
All 13 Michigan trees provided in this article have a thumbnail location map you can click to view large.
1. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
Sugar Maple Leaves
- Shape: 5 main lobes possessing pointed tips, sometimes 3 lobed; the classic Canadian Maple Leaf shape
- Edges: Smooth,
- Sinuses: Leaf sinuses where lobes meet are rounded and broad
Note: At first, I believed the Sugar Maple leaves shown above came from two separate species. This is a good example of the variations in leaf shapes among species which can fool the most discerning observer.
Sugar Maple Tree Size and Form
Large tree up to100 feet (30 m). Open grown trees form stout, upright branches near to the ground; in forest stands the trunk is relatively straight and free of branches for many feet from the ground having a broad round-topped crown.
Sugar Maple Tree Bark
Sugar Maple bark textures are quite variable showing deeper furrows with age. The oldest trees exhibit flake-like plates that are stubborn if you try to peel them off, while younger trees possess fairly smooth bark. Colors of the tree bark can also vary exhibiting greenish-gray to gray when younger, while older trees exhibit more silver-gray tones.
Sugar Maple Leaves Autumn Colors
The photo above of Sugar Maple autumn leaves all dropped to the ground from the same tree where I was delighted to pick them up.
Sugar Maple Tree Other Info
- Sugar Maples are the most dominant species in Michigan as well as in several other northern states, partly because they are shade tolerant.
- Michigan is the number one U.S. producer of maple syrup derived from the sap of the Sugar Maple.
2. Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Red Maple Leaves
- Shape: 3 to 5 main lobes with pointed tips
- Edges: Double serrated and finely toothed
- Sinuses: Shallow, sharply angled where the lobes meet
Red Maple Tree Size and Form
Medium size tree up to 70 feet (21 m). Trunk often free of branches for half its length in forest stands. Upright branches form a low dense, rather narrow, rounded crown.
Red Maple Tree Spring Flower
You would think the Red Maple tree was named for its seasonal red leaf color, but instead, the Red Maple was named for its flower color. As spring unfolds, the deep red blooms of the Red Maple cover the tree then drop to the ground splattering city streets and lawns in a sprinkles of red.
Red Maple Tree Seed Fruit
The seed fruit of the Red Maple tree, people often call "helicopters", have a characteristic horseshoe shape identical to other maple tree varieties, including the Sugar Maples and Silver Maples. If you spot a tree with helicopters shaped more like clothes hangers, you probably have come across the invasive burgundy colored Norway Maple tree, which have overtaken many areas where Sugar Maples once thrived.
Note: Sugar maple is the only native maple tree to seed in late summer and fall, all others seed during spring.
Red Maple Tree Bark
The patterns and colors of the Red Maple bark can be quite variable as with all maples. Young Red Maple tree bark is rather thin and smooth with varying colors greenish-gray to gray. In the photo above, the middle-tree trunk shows gill-like patterns, a tell-tale sign it's Red Maple, but not all Red Maple trees will display those markings. The more mature the tree, the deeper the furrows and grooves in the bark, and the easier to pull off flakes. Another give away for Red Maples are the bullseye patterns as seen in the oldest sample above, which Sugar Maples don't exhibit. Typically, the mature Red Maple bark can be brownish-gray, to silver-gray.
Red Maple tree autumn colored leaves can vary from yellow, orange to deep red.
3. Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)
Silver Maple Leaves
- Shape: 5 main lobes with pointed tips
- Edges: Smooth in between numerous serrations, more coarse than the Red Maple
- Sinuses: Sharply angled where the lobes meet extending deeper past mid-leaf than the Red Maple or Sugar Maple
- Other: The underside of the leaf is whitish silvery green and is quite pale in comparison to the frontside; very noticeable on the tree during windy days when the leaves flicker between the dark and light greens.
Silver Maple Tree Size and Form
The Silver Maple tree is large growing up 80 feet (24 m) high. Trunk sometimes separating near the ground into 3 to 4 upright stems which are branch free for a considerable distance; long, slender branches bend downward, but with their tips ascending in a graceful curve. When unobstructed, the crown is wide spreading and broad.
The Silver Maple tree bark at maturity reveals a silvery-gray tone with flaky elongated plates, which are often free at both ends. Children and adults alike are tempted to peel the flakes. Like the Silver Maple's cousins, the Sugar Maple and the Red Maple, their younger trees have much smoother thinner bark.
Silver Maple Tree Autumn Colored Leaves
Here in Michigan, the Silver Maple's leaves are slower to get their seasonal colors compared to other maple varieties, and more often than not, they lose their leaves before their colors can change. But, depending on their location, they can be just as spectacular as their cousin varieties.
Silver Maple Tree Other Info
Silver Maple appears as a dominant species only in streamside communities or on the fringes of lakes. Occasionally, they are found in swamps, gullies, and small depressions of slow drainage. Generally they're unable to compete with other species in upland environments. Also, even though they are native to the Central and Eastern regions of the United States (Click thumbnail above for location map), you're more likely to see Silver Maples along city streets, parks and suburban yards, recommended by nurseries for their fast growth rate.
4. Black Oak (Quercus velutina)
Black Oak Leaves
- Shape: 5 to 9 lobes with pointed ends exhibiting extended bristly tips. Large leaf is longer than wide.
- Edges: Smooth
- Sinuses: Notches where the lobes meet are broadly rounded. In comparison, The Pin Oak leaves cut deeper towards the center of the leaf where the lobes meet, while the Northern Red Oak leaves have shallower sinuses where the lobes meet.
- Other: Another good way to tell apart the Black Oak leaves from the Northern Red Oak leaves is by their glossier sheen.
Black Oak Tree Size and Form
The Black Oak is a large tree growing up to 100 feet (30m) high. Slender branches and stout branchlets form a wide-spreading, dense, often irregular, rounded, flat-topped crown; dead lower branches usually not persistent on lower trunk.
Essential Information for Identifying Oak Tree Varieties
I was initially confused when trying to identify several species of the majestic Oaks, but the following information helped clear some things up. Oak trees are a group of hardwood trees categorized into two families both possessing large leaves measuring 5 to 9 inches (12 to 22 cm) long.
Red Oak Family
There are several varieties of Red Oaks, all of which exhibit lobed leaves with pointed tips and tiny bristles on the very ends. The Black Oak tree belongs to the Red Oak family, hence, my initial confusion. Click Illustration Above (Red oaks are named for their fall colored leaves which stay on their trees longer than most others, sometimes throughout the entire winter season.)
White Oak Family
There are several varieties of white oak trees, all of which have lobed leaves with rounded margins lacking bristles on the very tips. Click Illustration Above (White oaks are named for the white color of their fresh cut wood.)
Black Oak tee bark is rough, grayish-black in color with fairly deep furrows and with age shows horizontal cracks, forming irregular short ridges having a squarish-blocky appearance.
Black Oak seed fruit (acorn) is medium-sized and broadly rounded. The cap is large and covers 1/2 to 3/4 of the nut, slight fraying around the edges. Colors vary from reddish brown to dark brown, some with dark stripes.
Black Oak tree autumn colored leaves typically turn brownish-red to red. A strong defining feature is how the leaves remain on the tree far past the season well into winter months. (Leaf on left from sapling)
5. Northern Red Oak (Quercus, rubra)
Northern Red Oak Leaves
- Shape: 7 to 11 lobes having tiny bristles on the very tips. Large leaf, longer than wide, thin and firm.
- Edges: Smooth
- Sinuses: Rounded and shallower where the lobes meet compared to the Black Oak or Pin Oak.
Red Oak Tree Size and Form
Large tree, up to 100 feet (30 m) high. Forming a broad, rounded crown of a few large wide-spreading limbs and slender branches with dense foliage; dead branches usually not persistent on lower trunk.
Northern Red Oak Bark
Northern Red Oak bark is fairly smooth with shallow vertical cracks or fissures showing reddish bark underneath often with some horizontal cracks; as the tree ages, the furrows deepen into long, broad, flat and smooth topped ridges (as if ironed out). The overall bark has a greenish-gray to gray tone in young trees to grayish-brown and darker with age.
Northern Red Oak seed-fruit (acorn) is larger than the Black Oak acorns. The cap covers 1/4 to 1/3 of the nut, having a matte finish and is colored tan. Cap has tight overlapping shingles. Produces on tree between 25-50 years of age.
Northern Red Oak autumn colors on young saplings are quite red, whereas the older tree leaves turn from reddish brown to brown, remaining on the tree longer than most species.
Northern Red Oak Other Info
With its dense leaf coverage and height the Northern Red Oak is among the best shade trees to have on your property offering a cool spot on scorching afternoons.
Common names include Red Oak, Common Red Oak, Eastern Red Oak, Mountain Red Oak, Gray Oak.
Fast growing, Norther Red Oak trees may live up to 400 years.
Northern Red Oak is the most common species of oak in the northeastern US after the closely related Pin Oak (Quercus, palustris). The red oak group as a whole are more abundant today than they were when European settlement of North America began as forest clearing and exploitation for lumber much reduced the population of the formerly dominant White Oaks.
6. Poplar or Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
Eastern Cottonwood (Poplar) Leaves
- Shape: Heart or Triangular with a pointed tip
- Edges: Well defined, deeply toothed conspicuously incurved
- Other: Surface is quite shiny, waxy and thick compared to most tree leaves
Eastern Cottonwood Tree Size and Form
Fast growing, the Eastern Cottonwood is a large tree up to 100 feet (30 m) high. In stands, trees develop slender, smooth trunks and relatively short, open symmetrical crowns; trunks of open-grown trees often divide into two or more stems that form a wide-spreading, open, often irregular crown of massive branches.
Eastern Cottonwood (Poplar) Bark
The Cottonwood tree bark is grayish-white. The base of the trunk on a mature Cottonwood exhibits fairly deep furrowed bark with broad, flat-topped ridges, while the upper portion of the trunk exhibits fairly smooth, thin bark. Younger trees possess smooth, thin bark throughout.
Eastern Cottonwood Tree (Poplar Tree) Flower (Catskins) and Seeds
The flowering catskins of the Cottonwood tree (male or shorter female) dangle from their branches during the spring season in colors of greenish to gold (female) to purple (male trees), with sticky shells which can be problematic making a mess all over the landscape.
The photo above right also shows a cross section of an Eastern Cottonwood twig revealing the telltale inner star shape. Click thumbnail above to observe female catskin.
Once the female seeds of the Eastern Cottonwood develop and release into the air, they spread fuzzy white fluff sticking to lawns and whatnot, blanketing everything nearby.
The Eastern Cottonwood or Poplar tree autumn leaves typically turn golden brown to deep golden-yellow.
Eastern Cottonwood Poplar Tree Info
There are male and female versions of this very fast growing tree. The females are the culprits spreading their fuzzy cotton seeds that can get stuck in air conditioners and cover lawns like snow.
Cottonwood grows best in moist, well-drained, fine sandy or silt loams, and that explains why you see them quite often along Lake Michigan dunes.
Eastern cottonwoods typically live 70–100 years, but they have the potential to live 200-400 years in ideal conditions.
7. Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
Quaking Aspen Leaves
- Shape: Heart shape, thin with pointed tip, very similar to the Cottonwood leaves, but smaller and more rounded
- Edges: Shallower toothed than Cottonwood
Quaking Aspen Tree Size and Form
Medium to large tree up to 72 feet (22 m) high. Trunk can be straight or crooked, supporting an open, rounded crown of slender branches; slender trunk with little taper, smooth and branchless for much of its length.
Quaking Aspen tree bark is smooth and whitish gray, becoming fissured with long, flat-topped ridges at the base of older trees or trees in deep shade; sometimes mistaken for Cottonwood or Birch.
Quaking Aspen autumn colored leaves turn yellow to greenish yellow or golden brown.
Quaking Aspen Tree Other Info
Quaking Aspens derive their name due to the leaf stem being flat and structured at an angle making them tremble, shimmer and quake at the slightest of breeze. I love the sound they make as well. This phenomena is also true for their cousin species, the Cottonwood.
The Quaking Aspen is another fast growing species in the poplar family native to the cooler regions of North America, (click on thumbnail map above) and one of several species referred to by the common name, aspen. Like many species, it goes by serval distinct common names, sometimes leading to confusion, including: quaking aspen, trembling aspen, American aspen, mountain or golden aspen, trembling poplar, white poplar, and popple, as well as a few others.
8. Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)
Paper Birch Leaves
- Shape: Rounded heart shape very similar to the Quaking Aspen, but has a more pointed tip
- Edges: More sharply toothed than the Cottonwood or Quaking Aspen, more or less double serrated except for rounded base.
Paper Birch Tree Size and Form
The Paper Birch is a large tree growing up to 80 feet (24 m) high, forming in youth a compact, pyramidal or oval crown of many slender branches ending in very fine branchlets; becoming in old age a long, branchless trunk with a broad, open crown composed of a few large limbs ascending to an acute angle, with almost horizontal branches.
Paper Birch bark has such distinct bright white bark with fine horizontal lines, sometimes exhibiting thinly peeled bark, that they require little further investigation in order to identify them. Sometimes the bark turns dark brownish-black near the ground.
Paper Birch autumn colored leaves range from golden yellow to golden brown
Paper Birch Tree Other Info
Paper Birch trees are also known as American White Birch and Canoe Birch. They are a short-lived species of birch native to the northern regions of North America. (Click on thumbnail map above)
Paper birch is often one of the first species to colonize a burned area within the northern latitudes, and is an important species for moose browsing. The wood is often used for pulp and firewood.
Paper Birch trees have many similarities with the Cottonwood and Aspens, but do not belong to the poplar family.
Paper Birch prefers stream edges or low lying moist soil where I discovered a stand in Southwestern Michigan's preserved Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area where the Kalamazoo River once ran before it was rerouted at the turn of the century to facilitate shipping.
9. Sassafras (albidum)
- Shapes: 1. Triple lobed 2. Mitten 3. Oval
- The most outstanding feature of the Sassafras tree is the three distinct shaped leaves growing on the same tree and even on the same branch, making them easy to identify.
- Edges: Smooth
- Other: Leaves are highly distinguished by their aromatic properties, which have made the tree very useful to humans.
Sassafras Tree Size and Form
Medium size up to 50 feet( 15 m) high. Trunk stout, often contorted, abruptly spreading branches wave and twist forming a flat-topped, rather open, columnar crown, making them easily identifiable from a reasonable distance. .
Sassafras tree bark is gray to reddish brown and deeply furrowed with irregular, flat-topped ridges, some with distinct rectangular patterns. As with many tree varieties, the older the tree the chunkier the bark and the deeper the furrows.
Sassafras Fall Colors
Sassafras tree autumn colored leaves put on quite a show ranging from bright yellow, orange and red. They are among the most colorful trees in autumn matching the colorful maples.
Sassafras Tree Other Info
All parts of the Sassafras albidum tree have been used for human purposes throughout history, including the stems, bark, leaves, wood, roots, fruit, and flowers. Sassafras albidum, while native to North America, is significant to the economic, medicinal, and cultural history of both Europe and North America including Native Americans.
In North America, it has particular culinary significance, being featured in distinct national foods such as traditional root beer and Louisiana Creole cuisine.
The tree's significance for Native Americans was magnified with the European quest for sassafras as a commodity for export, bringing Europeans into closer contact with Native Americans during the early years of European settlement in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Sassafras trees are known to repel mosquitoes and other insects.
10. Yellow Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Yellow Tulip Poplar Leaves
- Shape: Four roundish lobes form to a point
- Edges: Smooth
- Other: Surface is glossy, thick and firm
Yellow Tulip Poplar Tree Size and Form
Large tree up to 150 feet (45 m) high. Trunk tall, branchless for long length forming a compact, rather open, conical crown of slender branches. Yellow Tulip Poplars are one of the tallest hardwood trees in North America, fast growing with one of the most perfectly straight trunks in the forest.
Yellow Tulip tree bark is light greenish-gray in color, is thick on mature trees and deeply furrowed with tightly patterned narrow ridges often mistaken for ash tree bark.
Yellow Tulip Poplar autumn colored leaves are always yellow turning brown with age.
Yellow Tulip Poplar Other Info
George Washington planted Yellow Tulip Poplar trees at Mount Vernon which are now 140 feet tall; and Daniel Boone used the wood of this tree for his 60 foot dugout canoe.
This tree is named for its flower which is tulip-like in shape, colored greenish-yellow with an orange band in the interior, very attractive to bees.
Once plentiful in their natural habitat in eastern North America, yellow tulip tree populations were significantly reduced by loggers for railroad ties and fence posts.
The Yellow Tulip tree is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Yellow Tulip Poplar tree, although the common name suggests, is not from the poplar family.
11. White Ash Tree (Fraxinus americana)
White Ash Leaves
- Shape: Compound leaf with 5 to 11 oval leaflets per leaf stem, including for both White Ash and Green Ash. The White Ash leaflets are attached with a longer stem (petiole). Note: The photo below of ash tree leaves in fall colors shows Green Ash leaves judging by their shorter stems.
- Edges: Smooth (most often)
White Ash Tree Size and Form
The White Ash is a large tree, up to 80 feet (24 m) high. Trunk is straight, extending well into the upper crown, in forest stands is free of branches for a considerable length; forms an open, pyramidal crown of long, slender, lateral branches.
White Ash tree bark typically is light tannish-gray in color. Very young trees possess a smooth texture while mature trees show long, narrow vertical ridges alternating with deep valleys which resemble diamond shapes. Also, the White Ash texture is more firm to the touch than the flakier Green Ash bark.
Ash Tree Autumn Colors
Ash tree autumn colored leaves typically turn yellow, yellowish green, to a pattern of orange and yellow on younger saplings.
Ash Trees Other Info
Very unfortunately, both the White Ash and Green Ash have been almost completely wiped out in Michigan along with millions of ash trees in the Central and Northeastern regions of the United States. The destruction is caused by the invasive Emerald Ash Borer insect. I have come across a few young survivors within my forested property, and numerous young saplings are popping up in the general area where I live. Hopefully, they make a come back because they are valuable to the forest ecology and have uses for people as well. Many baseball bats have been fashioned using Ash wood.
Note: The above tree died because of the Emerald Ash Borer. There are quite a few dead Ash trunks still standing in my local forest, and while driving along the freeway, you will see Ash tree graveyards where they haven't yet fallen over, most noticeable during summer months when other tree varieties display their leaves.