How to Identify a Tree
By: Julie Day
“How do I go about identifying a tree in my yard?” -Isabel
There are almost 700 species of trees native to the US and Canada, not to mention naturalized and exotic varieties, which is more than more of us can keep in our brains. Identifying a tree isn’t all that difficult – all you need is a little information and a good identification resource, such as a tree key or guidebook.
Step 1: Take Note of the Tree’s Features
Observe, sketch, or photograph the main features of the tree, including:
- Leaf size and shape
- Fruit, seeds, or cones
- Overall shape and size
If you’re out walking and need a shortcut, you can make a fairly accurate identification simply using a leaf sample.
Step 2: Consult a Tree Key or Identification Guide
A “tree key” is designed to help you identify your tree by answering a series of multiple-choice questions. Most tree keys begin by asking you if the tree has needles or broad leaves, and it goes on to more detailed questions. Some tree keys also offer identification by twig, flower, or seed. There are many online tree keys available, including:
Another good resource is a tree identification guidebook, which categorizes trees according to leaf shape, flower type, fruit, cones, and seeds. Some tree identification guides include:
- National Audubon Society Field Guides to Trees
- Peterson Field Guide Series for Trees
- Tree Finder
No matter what resource you use, simply compare your sample and information to the guide, and you will soon have your tree identified. Most have photos or diagrams that help to make sense of the terminology, and most have an easy step-by-step process to narrow down the choices. Before you know it, you’ll have that tree identified!
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