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.