How to Identify Trees for Beginners

various tree identification books stacked against a green backpack

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This is not an unabridged guide on how to identify trees.

Quite the opposite, it is advice provided by a novice tree identifier and humble naturalist as to what I have learned about tree identification. A “For Beginners, by a Beginner” you might say. And why would the world need such a guide?

Well, the process of going from “That’s a tree” to “Yeah, that’s a Sitka spruce, they’re rad just for their size and shade, but one of their greatest attributes is how they block Pacific Ocean salt and wind, allowing Coastal Redwoods to grow” can be a long one, and the first steps often prove the toughest.

This guide aims to help you get past that first stage and comfortable enough to delve into books with more in-depth information.

If you pick up a book on tree identification, you’ll typically find them packed with scientific terms that are semi-explained, but all too often with more scientific terms. Things like “lanceolate” and “gymnosperms”. While not to be dismissed altogether, and certainly not in the long run, sometimes when you’re getting into looking at trees and wondering what types they are, what they’re good for and how they interact with the rest of the forest around them, you just want an easy in.

Also note that while I grew up in Pennsylvania, my interest in identifying these big ol’ guys hadn’t started until I’d been out West, so much of what I talk about here is from that experience.

Knowing Your Location

In a sort of reverse Catch 22, knowing the environment you are in will help you identify trees, while at the same knowing your trees will give you a much better understanding of your environment.

small round blue berry-like cones of a juniper tree
Juniper trees are prevalent throughout the southwestern deserts, their cones (seen here) referred to as berries. Photograph by Ken Bosma.

Here in the United States, we’re primarily a temperate forest (though some classifications put parts of Florida in a tropical zone). From there we can break down the types of environments range from coastal to mountainous (referred to as montane), deserts to plains. The types of trees you’ll find in each area vary widely, while at the same time certain types of trees can live across many regions. Douglas-fir, for example, thrive from the Pacific Northwest to the Sierra Nevadas to the Rocky Mountains.

Broadleaf or Coniferous

The first step in identifying trees is to know your broadleaf trees from your coniferous. Coniferous (as in, “bearing cones”) are pine trees and the like, which typically have pointy needles. Think of Christmas trees. The scientific term gymnosperm is often applied to these trees, which simply means that they have seeds which are not covered by a fruit or nut.

a small apple tree against a larger orchard
Apple trees are an example of broadleaf trees, the seeds live inside of the apples themselves instead of a cone. Photo by Matt Callow

Broadleaf trees are everything else. Picture big maple leaves, the often oddly shaped leaves of oak trees, and anything else we typically consider a “leaf” vs. a “needle”. Scientists refer to these trees as angiosperms, which means their seeds are covered in a fruit or a nut.

Evergreen vs. Deciduous vs. Coniferous vs. Broadleaf

I long thought that the terms evergreen and coniferous were interchangeable. I also assumed the term “broadleaf” was simply laymen’s for deciduous. Turns out, there’s a difference in both cases.

Evergreen means a tree doesn’t lose its leaves over the winter. While most evergreens are also coniferous trees, there are some coniferous trees that lose their leaves, such as larches, and likewise, certain broadleaf trees keep their leaves all year round, such as the various live oak. Evergreen is the opposite of Decidous.

Deciduous trees, on the other hand, lose their leaves for part of the year, and grow them back again typically in the spring. This is the root of the beauty of fall foliage that we see as many trees turn yellow, orange and red come Autumn. Deciduous is the opposite of evergreen.

a young boy holds a sequoia cone in his hand
An unopened Giant Sequoia cone. While cones can vary quite a bit, they’re typically immediately recognizable outside of the juniper and cypress families.

Coniferous trees are those with cones. Pine trees. Spruce, firs, redwoods, hemlocks, larches, cypress, these are all in that range. Though not scientifically conifers, alder trees also have cones and are pretty cool like that. Coniferous trees typically have needles.

Broadleaf trees are essentially the opposite of conifers. They have flat, broad leaves.

A Quick Guide to Coniferous Needles

Firstly, there are two major distinctions in conifer leaves: needles and scales. Needles are long, slender and pointy. Scales are short and overlap as in plates of armor.

When you’re looking at a tree with needles, one of the easiest ways to figure out the type of tree it is lies in those needles. Here are a few simple rules you can use when looking at and feeling needles. Just follow these steps in order.

  1. Pines have many bundled needles. If a tree has two or more bundled needles, meaning they are hooked together where they meet the limb, it’s likely to be a pine.
  2. Spruce spin. When you pluck a needle from a tree and it spins easily between your fingers (because it has more than two sides), it’s probably a spruce.
  3. Firs are flat. Unlike spruce trees, fir needles have only two sides and so they don’t easily spin in your fingers.
the overlapping scales of a juniper tree
An example of scales is shown here, where small overlapping awls line the twig instead of long needles. Photo by Matt Lavin

There are several other types of conifers but for the most part, this quick test will get you pointed in the right direction.

Coniferous Scales

If you’re looking at a tree with scales, you’re in luck, as they tend to be easier to identify (at least on a broad range) than conifers with needles. Trees with scales include:

Junipers, which can be further identified by looking for small, usually blue, “berries”, which are actually their cones.

Cypress, which is a term that covers both all trees with scales as well as specific types of trees referred to as cypress, such as the Arizona cypress. Instead of the small berries of a juniper, cypress cones look more like gumball sized wooden teatherballs.

scaled needles of a giant sequoia tree
Both types of Giant Sequoia needles: those nearest the branch are overlapped scales, while longer leaves extrude from the twigs. Photo by Forest Starr.

Coastal Redwoods and Sequoias also have scaled leaves, though in both instances they can have two needle patterns. Lower branches are often scaly on the twig but then shoot out flat, paddle-like leaves, while higher branches have awl-shaped needles (awl-shaped refers more or less to long triangles).

Looking at the Bark

For both broadleaf and conifers trees, the bark can be one of the best ways to distinguish very similar looking trees apart, though at the same time, many trees have similar looking bark, and a single species of tree can have drastically different looking bark depending on how old it is.

Here are some clarifications on different terms you’ll find in tree identification books.

Scaly typically refers to a bunch of somewhat overlapping, squarish, usually thin pieces of bark. Sitka and Blue spruce trees have very scaly bark.

two tree trunks where the bark is flaky
An example of scaly bark, shown here on a Sitka spruce near the Oregon Coast.

Furrowed refers to bark that is deeply grooved, often in chunky vertical strips. This is perhaps the most common type of bark and what springs to mind when we envision tree bark. Redwoods are an example of incredibly furrowed bark, hemlocks are minimally furrowed, and Doug-firs are a happy medium.

a wide tree in a forest, its bark deeply grooved
The furrowed bark of a white pine. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Papery refers to bark that is, often white, like paper. It looks as though it could be peeled off and when it is, it’s thin and can often hold together in large pieces. White birch in the Northeast and Red alder in the Pacific Northwest are classic examples of papery bark.

small trees with white bark that looks like it could be stripped off like loose wallpaper
White birch trees have papery, thin bark. Photo by Liz West

Smooth refers to a a tree that can feel like it’s missing its bark altogether, or the bark comes in small plates resembling camouflage. Typically white or very light tan. Aspens and sycamores are examples of smooth bark.

tan, white and brown bark
The smooth, camo-like bark of a sycamore tree. Photo by Robert Benner.

Differentiating between Broadleaf Trees

As leaves can come in many, many shapes and sizes, identifying which family of trees a particular broadleaf is can be difficult. Here are some general guidelines for differentiating some common types of tree.

How to Identify an Oak. The easiest way to spot an oak is to look for acorns. When no acorns are present, look for furrowed dark bark and twisted trunks. Oaks often have “lobed leaves”, which means that each leaf has a bunch of rounded protrusions.

How to Identify a Maple. Just imagine the leaf on the Canadian flag, that’s your classic maple shape. The leaves also typically come of the twig in pairs, meaning there will be one coming out of the same spot on the branch on either side.

green leaves with many rounded, non-uniform protrusions, and green acorns
Example of “lobed” leaves and acorns belonging to a Gamble oak. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and Cory Maylett.

How to Identify an Aspen. Aspens have “heart-shaped” leaves, meaning they’re basically round, with a point at the end and a similar notch taken out of the other end (where the leaf meets the stem). They have smooth white bark, typically grown in groves of many aspen trees, and have black circles on their bark that look much like eyes.

How to Identify Cottonwoods. With very similar, but typically larger, leaves as aspens, cottonwoods grow near rivers and creeks, and often have course, grey bark that is furrowed near the bottom of the trunk and smoother as you climb higher.

How to Identify Boxelders. A type of maple, boxelders have leaves that look like someone took a typical maple leaf and separated the three main parts into individual leaves, which all spring from the same stem.

How to Identify an Alder. Most easily identifiable by the presence of cones, they’re the only non-coniferous broadleaf tree I’ve come across that has them. Note that they can be very small depending on the type of alder and time of year.

a brightly colored yellow leaf, having turned in autumn
Sycamore leaves. Photo by Dave McLear

How to Identify a Sycamore. The leaves of sycamore trees are somewhat like a maple leaf, but with a much more shallow pit between each of the extensions, similar to webbed feet. Their bark is typically reminiscent of desert camouflage.end of article

an infographic showing several steps to identifying common trees
Click the image to download a printable PDF version of this infographic.

Recommended Tree Identification Books for Beginners

These are the books I have found most useful, in varying stages:

Pacific Coast Tree Finder: A Pocket Manual for Identifying Pacific Coast Trees (Nature Study Guides) I loved this thin little pocket guide when I was just getting started. It’s sort of like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, in that it asks you simple questions like “Does the tree have bundles of 3 or more?” and then tells you what page to visit next, walking you through some basic steps of identifying trees all the way. So you not only get to quickly and easily figure out what kind of a tree you’re looking at, but you learn some key steps in what to look for overall.

There are several other varieties of these books available, like the Rocky Mountain Tree Finder and Winter Tree Finder.

Audubon Society Field Guide to California and it’s ilk aren’t solely focused on trees, but actually cover an assortment of natural aspects of an area, from stars to animals to geology and more, but they do a great job at briefly describing the types of trees you’ll find in any one particular corner of the country. They have plenty of versions, and I’ve had great luck using their Southwest states and Rocky Mountain states versions.

Finally, the Field Guide to Trees: Western Region, also by Audubon, starts to provide a lot more in-depth information. The book includes pictures of hundreds of trees’ leaves, bark, cones, fruit and flowers, in addition to lengthier descriptions to help you verify without a doubt the type of tree you’re studying. Where the previously mentioned guides help you narrow down the most likely trees in an area, this book picks up and gets you deep in.