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Identifying 13 Common Native Michigan Trees; Featuring Autumn Colors

Michigan Autumn Color Tour

Michigan Autumn Color Tour

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.

  • Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple
  • Black Oak, Red Oak
  • Cottonwood (Poplar)
  • Quaking Aspen
  • Paper Birch
  • Sassafras
  • 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.