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.
The opposites are maple and ash. The 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.
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.
Flower: This is another way to cross reference tree identity, but again, the flowering season is short lived.
Note: Michigan trees featured in this article include in order: Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Black Oak, Red Oak, Cottonwood (Poplar), Quaking Aspen, Paper Birch, Sassafras, Yellow Tulip Poplar, White Ash, Black Cherry and American Beech.
All 13 Michigan trees provided in this article have a thumbnail location map you can click on to view large.
1. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
SUGAR MAPLE LEAVES
Shape: 5 main lobes possessing pointed tips; the classic Canadian Maple Leaf shape
Sinuses: Leaf sinuses where lobes meet are curved
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 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 trees also vary exhibiting greenish-gray to gray when younger, while older trees exhibit silver-gray tones.
SUGAR MAPLE AUTUMN COLORS can vary in from yellow, yellowish green, red, orange, or more rarely, pink or purplish with bright green veins. The above autumn colored leaves all dropped to the ground from the same tree where I was delighted to pick them up. They are among the most beautiful autumn leaves I have ever seen.
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: 5 main lobes with pointed tips
Edges: Serrated and finely toothed
Sinuses: Sharply angled where the lobes meet
RED MAPLE SEED FRUIT people refer to as "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 Norway Maple tree which have overtaken many areas where Sugar Maples once thrived. Sugar maple is the only native maple to seed in late summer and fall, all others seed during spring.
RED MAPLE BARK patterns and colors can be quite variable as with all maples. Young Red Maple tree bark is rather smooth and can be greenish-gray to gray. The middle tree trunk in the above photo shows gill like patterns, a tell tale sign it's Red Maple, but not all Red Maple trees will have those markings. The more mature the tree, the deeper the furrows and grooves and the easier to pull off flakes. Another give away are the bullseye patterns as seen in the oldest sample above, which Sugar Maples don't have. The Red Maple tree bark can be brownish-gray, to silver-gray.
RED MAPLE AUTUMN COLORS can vary from yellow, orange to deep red.
OTHER INFO: 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, seen along roadsides, landscapes or in forests, tend to stand out, and once the flowers drop to the ground, city lawns can be covered in 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 BARK is silvery-gray colored with somewhat flaky elongated patterns as seen on the mature sample above. Like its cousins, the Sugar Maple and the Red Maple, their younger trees have much smoother bark.
SILVER MAPLE AUTUMN COLOR leaves are slower to get their seasonal colors than other maple varieties and sometimes lose their leaves before they even have a chance to change color. But, depending on their location, they can be just as spectacular as their cousin varieties.
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)
ESSENTIAL INFORMATION WHEN 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 possessing large leaves measuring 5 to 9 inches (12 to 22 cm) long.
Red Oak Family
Red oaks are named for their fall colored leaves which stay on the tree longer than most others. There are several varieties all of which exhibit lobed leaves with pointed tips and tiny bristles on the very tips. The Pin Oak and Black Oak belong to the Red Oak family, hence, my initial confusion.
White Oak Family
White oaks are named for the white color of their fresh cut wood. There are several varieties of white oak trees, all of which have lobed leaves with rounded tips lacking bristles on the very tips.
BLACK OAK LEAVES
Shape: 5 to 9 main lobes with pointed ends exhibiting extended bristly tips. Large leaf is longer than wide.
Sinuses: Notches where the lobes meet are somewhat deep with a curved U-shape. 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 BARK with its rough, grayish-black bark, elongated grooves and furrows, define this species, including minus the vertical cracks or fissures found in the smoother bark of the Northern Red Oak..
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, fraying around the edges. Colors vary from reddish brown to dark brown, some with dark stripes.
BLACK OAK AUTUMN COLORS most typically exhibit leaves turned brownish red to red, remaining on the tree far past the season.
OTHER INFO: The Black Oak tree is a large tree growing up to 100 feet (30 meters) tall with dense foliage that grows into a sizeable flat-topped crown.
5. Northern Red Oak
NORTHER RED OAK LEAVES
Shape: 7 to 11 lobes having tiny bristles on the very tips. Large leaf, longer than wide.
Sinuses: Rounded and shallower where the lobes meet compared to the Black Oak or Pin Oak.
NORTHERN RED OAK BARK can be described as fairly smooth with shallow vertical cracks or fissures showing reddish bark underneath; the older the tree, the deeper the cracks. The overall bark has a greenish-gray to gray tone.
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 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 trees turn from reddish brown to brown, remaining on the tree longer than most species.
OTHER INFO: With its dense leaf coverage and typical height of almost 100 feet (30.5 meters), 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.
6. Poplar or Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
POPLAR OR EASTERN COTTONWOOD LEAVES
Shape: Heart or Triangular with a pointed tip
Edges: Well defined, deeply toothed
Other: Surface is quite shiny, waxy and thick compared to most tree leaves
POPLAR OR EASTERN COTTONWOOD BARK is grayish-white. The base of the trunk on a mature Cottonwood exhibits fairly deep furrowed bark, while the portion of the trunk towards the top exhibits smooth bark. Younger trees possess smooth bark throughout.
POPLAR OR EASTERN COTTONWOOD SEED FRUIT during the spring season dangles from their branches in colors of green or gold, but by the time they drop from the tree, they will have turned purple with sticky shells. This can be quite problematic making a mess all over the landscape.
The photo above right is a cross section of an Eastern Cottonwood twig revealing the telltale star shape.
POPLAR OR EASTERN COTTONWOOD AUTUMN COLORS are typically golden brown to deep golden yellow.
OTHER 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 Cottonwood is one of the largest North American hardwood trees growing 65 to 195 feet (20 to 60 meters).
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 with pointed tip, very similar to the Cottonwood, but smaller and more rounded
Edges: Shallower toothed than Cottonwood
QUAKING ASPEN BARK is smooth and whitish gray from top to bottom no matter the age, sometimes mistaken for Cottonwood or Birch.
QUAKING ASPEN AUTUMN COLORS turn yellow to greenish yellow or golden brown.
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 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
PAPER BIRCH BARK has such distinct bright white bark with fine horizontal lines, sometimes exhibiting peeled bark, that they require no further investigation in order to identify them.
PAPER BIRCH FALL COLORS range from golden yellow to golden brown
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 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.
Other: Highly distinguished by their aromatic properties, which have made the tree very useful to humans (explained below).
SASSAFRAS BARK is gray to reddish brown and deeply furrowed with distinct rectangular patterns. As with many tree varieties, the older the tree the chunkier the bark and the deeper the furrows.
SASSAFRAS TREE TRUNKS wave and twist making them easily identifiable from a reasonable distance.
Sassafras Fall Colors
SASSAFRAS AUTUMN COLORS come in a wide range from bright yellow, orange and red. They are among the most colorful trees in autumn.
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
Other: Surface is glossy and has a somewhat heavier thickness than many other leaf species
YELLOW TULIP POPLAR BARK is light 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 COLORS are always yellow turning brown with age.
OTHER INFO: George Washington planted yellow tulip 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 tulip tree is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Yellow Tulip Poplar, although the common name suggests, is not in the poplar family.
Yellow Tulip Poplars are one of the tallest hardwood trees in North America, fast growing from 70 to 160 feet (21 to 50 meters) with one of the most perfectly straight trunks in the forest.
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 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 COLORS typically turn yellow, yellowish green, to a pattern of orange and yellow on younger saplings.
OTHER INFO: 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.
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 trees have their leaves.
12. Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
BLACK CHERRY LEAVES
Shape: Oblong growing alternately along stem
Edges: Finely toothed
Note: The Black Cherry leaf can be confused with Ash and Beech tree leaves. Cross referencing with the bark, fruit or flowers is always helpful when identifying trees. Also, by observing whether the leaves are attached to the stem alternate or opposite. Ash and Beech grow opposite; Cherry grows alternate as seen in photos.
BLACK CHERRY BARK is most useful for identifying this tree. Mature trees possess dark gray to almost black bark with a unique rough texture exhibiting turned up checkered-like flakes; young trees are grayish brown with intermittent horizontal lines.
BLACK CHERRY FLOWER is white, oblong and quite aromatic.
BLACK CHERRY AUTUMN COLORS turn yellow to yellowish green.
OTHER INFO: The Black Cherry is the largest of all other cherry tree varieties in Michigan and outlying states. Crowded trees grow tall and slender, which I can vouch for in my local forest.
The wood is a valuable commodity for cabinet and furniture making and, of course, ecologically for the birds and other animals.
13. American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
AMERICAN BEECH LEAVES
Shape: Oval, pointed tip, not parallel at lower stem attachment
Edges: Smooth, sharply toothed
Other: Slight sheen with well defined ridges and veining
AMERICAN BEECH BARK is the quintessential defining feature of this tree with its thin, smooth texture and light gray to greenish-gray color.
The smoothness of the bark presents a tempting surface for carving initials and names, but besides marring its natural beauty, this is an invitation for fungi and wood loving insect damage.
AMERICAN BEECH FALL COLORS turn yellow, then golden brown, then later cling to their branches throughout the winter months.
OTHER INFO: The American Beech tree has a lifespan of 150 to 400 years. The American Beech can reach 66 to 115 feet (20–35 meters) in height.
A mature American Beech is truly majestic with its wide spreading canopy and stately stature holding a special place in many hearts.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Kathi
Kathi (author) from Saugatuck Michigan on November 07, 2020:
I enjoyed the photos of maple leaves in your article and the scientific information about photosynthesis. Would have commented there, but it wouldn't let me. Thanks for the visit, anyway!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 06, 2020:
This is a very informative article! Thank you for sharing the lovely photos and all the details about the trees, Kathi.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 06, 2020:
So beautiful! We have these species in our neighborhood and backyard in Illinois. But we've been in Michigan during the fall and the colors are amazing. Thanks for sharing!
Kathi (author) from Saugatuck Michigan on November 06, 2020:
Thank you Viet, so glad it brought back those fond memories for you. I love the paper birch too! I imagine it was cool to work for the US Forest Service.
Viet Doan from Big Island, Hawaii on November 06, 2020:
I really enjoy reading your article, Kathi! It brought back fond memories of my years of living in northern Michigan working for the US Forest Service. My most favorite tree in Michigan is the Paper Birch with its peeling white barks and brilliant golden foliage in the fall. Beautiful photos of leaves and trees, excellent article!