Best Methods Identifying Tree Species
Honestly, there is no single method when trying to identifying trees, 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 features because even observing the shapes of leaves 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.
Sugar Maple Tree
Sugar Maple Tree (Acer saccharum) Info
At first, I thought the Sugar Maple leaves above were two separate species because of their differing shapes. This is a good example of the variations of leaf shapes which can fool the most discerning observer. But the defining features that give them away as Sugar Maples are . . .
Leaf Lobes: 5 lobes
Leaf Edges: Smooth edges with pointed tips
Leaf Sinuses: The angle where the lobes meet is curved
Leaf Shape: Relatively wide shape and looks like the classic Canadian Maple Leaf which is the Sugar Maple.
Bark: The bark is variable with Sugar Maple trees showing deeper furrows with age. The oldest trees will exhibit flaky like plates that are stubborn if you try to peel them off. Younger trees can be colored greenish-gray to gray while the older trees are colored silver gray. The photo below demonstrates the progression from youngest to oldest.
Interesting Facts: Sugar Maples are the most dominant species in Michigan as well as many 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.
Problem: The Norway Maple is an invasive species introduced from Europe in the 50's and 60's to replace the American Elm being demolished by the Dutch Elm Disease. Unfortunately, it has overtaken Sugar Maple groves in many areas and will continue to as long as nurseries offer them in their inventory! They are fairly easy to tell apart from the Sugar Maple by their leaves which have a wider body; color can be deep purple or green.
Sugar Maple Fall Colors
Sugar Maple leaves during the Fall season can vary in color from yellow, yellowish green, red, orange, or more rarely, pink or purplish with bright green veins. The above Fall 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.
Red Maple Tree
Red Maple Tree (Acer rubrum) Info
The shape and features of the Red Maple leaves are fairly easy to distinguish from the Sugar Maple's. Here's why . . .
Leaf Edges: Serrated, finely toothed, where as the Sugar Maple leaves have smooth edges.
Leaf Sinuses: Where the lobes meet are sharply angled, whereas the Sugar Maple leaves have rounded edges where the lobes meet.
Bark: The photos below of Red Maple tree trunks demonstrates the variation you often find from the same species. Young Red Maple tree bark is rather smooth and can be green-gray to gray. The middle tree trunk in the 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 bulls eye patterns seen in the oldest sample which Sugar Maples don't have. The Red Maple tree bark can be brownish-gray, to silver-gray.
Fruit: The seed fruit people refer to as "helicopters" (which they complain about once the fruit drops to the ground and covers their lawns) have a characteristic horseshoe shape on almost all maple tree varieties. If you spot a tree with helicopters shaped more like clothes hangers, you probably have come across the Norway Maple tree mentioned above which have invaded many areas where Sugar Maples thrive.
Interesting Facts: You would think the Red Maple tree got it's name from the seasonal red leaf color, but true Red Maple gets its name from the flower color, not the leaf color. As spring unfolds, the deep red blooms of the Red Maple trees seen along roadsides, landscapes or in the woods tend to stand out, and once the leaves drop to the ground the lawns will be covered in red.
Like the Sugar Maple, autumn colors of the Red Maple can vary from scarlet red to orange to brilliant yellow or deep maroon.
Red Maple Fall Colors
Silver Maple Tree
Silver Maple Tree (Acer saccharinum) Info
Silver Maple leaves look very similar to the Red Maple. But there are differences to look for:
Leaf Lobes: Reveal more coarse serrations along the margins than the finer toothed Red Maple
Leaf Sinuses: Unlike the Red Maple, the grooves where the main lobes meet are smooth and extend deeper past mid-leaf.
Leaf Color: Color is one of the most distinguishing features of Silver Maples. The underside of the leaf is a whitish silvery green, most noticeable during windy days when the leaves flicker between the dark and light greens.
Bark: The photo sample below is from a mature Silver Maple which shows its silvery-gray color and slightly flaky elongated patterns. Like its cousins, the Sugar Maple and the Red Maple, their younger trees have much smoother gray bark.
Ecological Area: Silver maple appears as a dominant species only in streamside communities or on the fringes of lakes. Occasionally it is found in swamps, gullies, and small depressions of slow drainage. Generally they're unable to compete with other species in upland environments.
Note: Even though they are native to the Central and Eastern United States, you're more likely to see Silver Maples along city streets, parks and suburban yards, recommended by nurseries for their fast growth rate. But they are slow to get their autumn colors if at all, depending on the location. The photos above of Silver Maple leaves were taken during late October showing little signs of turning color and the tree will likely drop its leaves while the leaves are still green. Sometimes, though, the tips will change colors, and in just the right locations and conditions they will show off a beautiful display of fall color!
Silver Maple Fall Colors
Helpful Information When Identifying Oak Trees
In identifying the various tree species, I became most confused with the much loved majestic Oaks, but the following information I came across helped clear some things up.
Oak trees are a group of hardwood trees that belong to the genus Quercus and are from the beech family, Fagaceae. All types of oak trees are categorized into two groups: white oak trees, and red oak trees.
White Oak Trees
White oak is named for the white color of its fresh cut wood. White oak trees, of which there are several varieties, generally have lobed leaves that have rounded tips and don’t have bristles on the tips. The leaves of white oaks are large and similar in length to red oaks measuring 5” and 9” (12 – 22 cm) long.
Red Oak Trees
Red oak is named for their fall colored leaves which stay on the tree longer than most others. There are several varieties which all exhibit lobed leaves with pointed tips and tiny bristles on the very tip.
Black Oak Tree
Black Oak Tree (Quercus velutina) Info
The Red Oak Tree species called Black Oak grows up to 100 feet (30 meters) tall with dense foliage that grows into a sizeable flat-topped crown. Their leaves are similar to other Red Oak varieties including Northern Red Oak and the Pin Oak. Identifying features of Black Oak leaves include:
Leaf Lobes: Can be somewhat shallow or deep with pointy bristly tips with 5 to 9 lobes.
Leaf Sinuses: Notches where the lobes meet are fairly deep and U-shaped. The Pin Oak leaves cut deeper towards the center of the leaf where the lobes meet, while the Northern Red Oak leaves have somewhat shallower sinuses where the lobes meet.
Leaf Surface: Shiny - A good way to tell the Black Oak leaves from the Northern Red Oak leaves is their glossy sheen.
Fruit (Acorn): Medium-sized and broadly rounded. The cap is large and covers almost half of the nut, fraying around the edges.
Bark: Rough, grayish-black bark with elongated grooves and furrows, define this species, but without the vertical cracks or fissures found in the smoother bark of the Northern Red Oak..
Black Oak Fall Colors
Northern Red Oak Tree
Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) Info
Leaves of the Northern Red Oak are large and compare closely to the Black Oak and Pin Oak. They can turn deep red or brown in the Fall.
Leaf Lobes: Are wavy with tiny bristles at the very end, consisting of 7 to 11 lobes.
Leaf Sinus: Rounded and shallower where the lobes meet compared to the Black Oak or Pin Oak.
Leaf Surface: Dull shine turning red or reddish brown in Fall.
Fruit (Acorn): Half inch round shape with cap covering one third of acorn having a matte finish. Cap has tight overlapping shingles. Produces on the tree between 25-50 years of age.
Bark: The photo samples below are from a fairly young Northern Red Oak tree and a more mature Northern Red Oak tree. The bark can be described as fairly smooth with shallow vertical cracks or fissures showing reddish bark underneath; and the older the tree, the more the cracks. The overall bark has a greenish-gray to gray tone.
Note: With its dense leaf coverage and a typical height of almost 100 feet, the Northern Red Oak is among the best shade trees to have on your property offering a cool spot on scorching afternoons.
Northern Red Oak Fall Colors
Poplar or Eastern Cottonwood Tree
Poplar or Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) Info
Nebraska's state tree (and quite common in Michigan) the towering Poplar or Eastern Cottonwood grows within a wide range of the eastern and central U.S. and southern Canada. They are fairly easy to identify by their leaf.
Leaf Shape: Heart or Triangular with a pointed tip
Leaf Surface: Shiny, waxy and thick
Leaf Edges: Well defined toothed
Bark: The lower portion of the trunk on a mature Cottonwood shows bark quite furrowed, while the portion of the tree trunk towards the top is smooth and grayish/white in color. Younger trees show smooth bark from bottom to top. The older the tree, the deeper the furrows and this stands true for most other tree species.
Interesting Facts: There are male and female versions of this very fast growing tree. The females are the culprits when it comes to spreading their flurry of cotton seeds that can get into air conditioners and cover lawns like snow.
Cottonwood grows best in moist, well-drained, fine sandy loams or silt loams and that explains why you see them quite often along Lake Michigan beaches. It is one of the largest North American hardwood trees.
Eastern cottonwoods typically live 70–100 years, but they have the potential to live 200-400 years in ideal conditions.
LEFT: In the Spring, the fruit of the Cottonwood hangs from the branches and by the time they drop from the tree they will have turned purple in color with sticky shells . . . and can make a mess.
RIGHT: Photo above shows a cross section of a Cottonwood twig which reveals the telltale star shape.
(Poplar) Eastern Cottonwood Fall Color
Quaking Aspen Tree
Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) Info
Another fast growing species in the poplar family, The Quaking Aspen is native to cooler regions of North America, 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.
Identifying features compared to Cottonwood:
Leaf Shape: Very similar to the Cottonwood, but more round and is shallower toothed. Also, the Aspen has a thinner, less waxy texture to the leaf.
Bark: Smooth and whitish gray without the furrows near the bottom on mature trees as with the Poplar Cottonwood trees.
Range: Wide range depending in the elevation. In the United States it can be found as far north as Alaska and at low elevations as far south as northern Nebraska and central Indiana. In the western U. S. is generally found at 5,000–12,000 feet (1,500–3,700 m). It grows at high altitudes as far south as Guanajuato, Mexico. Occurs across Canada in almost all provinces and territories.
Interesting Facts: The leaf stem is flat and structured at an angle to the leaf 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.
Quaking Aspen Fall Colors
Paper Birch Tree
Paper Birch Tree (Betula papyrifera) Info
Paper Birch trees have many similarities with the Cottonwood and Aspens, but do not belong to the poplar family.
Leaf Shape: Rounded heart shape very similar to the Quaking Aspen, but has a more pointed tip
Leaf Edges: More finely toothed than the Cottonwood or Quaking Aspen
Bark: Paper Birch have such distinct bright white bark often seen with their outer layers peeled back, so much so that they require little investigation further in order to identify them.
Interesting Facts: Paper Birch trees are also known as American White Birch and Canoe Birch. They are a short-lived species of birch native to northern North America. 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.
They prefer stream edges or low lying moist soil.
Note: The bright white Paper Birch bark provides a sparkle of brightness and beauty within the forest thicket.
Paper Birch Fall Colors
Sassafras (albidum) Tree Info
Sassafras, albidum genus is distinguished by its aromatic properties, which have made the tree useful to humans. The most unique feature of this outstanding tree is the three distinct shaped leaves which grow upon the same tree and even on the same branch. This makes them easy to identify using that feature alone as shown in the photo above.
Leaf Shapes: 1. Three large rounded lobes 2. Mitten shape 3. Oval shape
Leaf Edges: Smooth
Bark: Gray to reddish brown and deeply furrowed
Trunk: An identifying feature of the sassafras is its wavy large trunk branches
Interesting History and Facts: All parts of the Sassafras albidum plant have been used for human purposes, 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.
It's significance for Native Americans was also 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.
Sassafras Fall Colors
Yellow Tulip Poplar Tree
Yellow Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) Info
Yellow Poplar or Tulip Poplar - Although the common name suggests it, Tulip Poplar is not in the poplar family. They 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 perfect and straight trunks in the forest.
Leaf Shape: Four rounded lobes
Leaf Edges: Smooth
Leaf Surface: Glossy and thick
Flower: 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
Bark: Thick on mature trees and deeply furrowed with narrow ridges often mistaken for ash tree bark.
Interesting History and Facts: George Washington planted 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.
Once plentiful in their natural habitat in eastern North America, tulip tree populations were reduced by loggers for railroad ties and fence posts.
The tulip tree is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Tulip Poplar Autumn Color
White Ash Tree
White Ash (Fraxinus americana) Info
The leaves of White Ash and Green Ash, both common to Michigan, have compound leaves with 5 to 11 leaflets per stem. One way to tell them apart is the leaflets of White Ash are attached with a longer stem (petiole). Note: The photo below of ash tree leaves in fall colors is actually Green Ash judging by that characteristic.
Leaf Structure: Compound with 5 to 11 relatively equal in size leaflets per stem
Leaf Edges: Smooth (most often)
Leaf Shape: Leaflets are oval
Bark: Very young trees have a smooth texture while mature trees have long, narrow vertical ridges alternating with deep valleys which resemble diamond shapes. Also, the texture is more firm to the touch than the flakier Green Ash bark.
Note: The leaves of both the White Ash and the Black Cherry trees look very similar at first glance. The best way to tell them apart is to determine whether they grow along their branches opposite or alternate (Ash grows opposite - Cherry grows alternate. Also, the Black Cherry leaves have toothed edges whereas Ash leaves have smooth edges.
Decimation: Unfortunately, both the White Ash and Green Ash have been almost completely wiped out in Michigan along with millions of ash trees in Central and Northeastern United States by the invasive Emerald Ash Borer insect. I have come across a few young survivors on my forested property and very young saplings 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 still standing in my local forest, and while driving along the freeway, you will see Ash tree graveyards where they haven't yet fallen, most noticeable in the summer when other trees have their leaves.
Ash Tree Autumn Colors
Black Cherry Tree Leaf
Black Cherry Tree (Prunus serotina) Info
The Black Cherry leaf is fairly easy to identify, but can be confused with the Ash and the 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 are opposite; Cherry is alternate as seen in photos.
Leaf Shape: Oval/Oblong growing alternately along stem
Leaf Edges: Finely toothed
Leaf Surface: Typically has a sheen
Flower: White and oblong, aromatic
Fruit: Pea size fruit turning dark red when ripe, edible and used in cooking and beverages; and birds love them
Bark: (The best way to identify them) Mature trees have dark gray to almost black bark with a rough texture which has turned up checkered flakes; young trees are grayish brown with intermittent horizontal lines.
Interesting Facts: The Black Cherry is the largest of the other various cherry trees 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.
Black Cherry Fall Colors
American Beech Tree Leaf
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) Info
The American Beech with its wide spreading canopy and stately stature holds a special place in many hearts.
Leaf Shape: Oval
Leaf Edges: Sharply, deeply toothed
Leaf Surface: Slight sheen with well defined veining
Bark: (Best defining feather) Thin, smooth texture; light gray to greenish-gray in color. Note: The smooth bark of the American beech presents a tempting surface for carving initials and names. Besides marring its natural beauty, this is an invitation for fungi and wood loving insect damage.
Interesting Information: 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.
After turning yellow in Autumn, then golden brown, the leaves of the American Beech tree cling to their branches throughout the winter months.
American Beech Fall Colors
© 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!