Learn How to Identify Trees

Reader Contribution by Terry Krautwurst
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How can I learn to identify trees? What are the best resources for learning to know an elm from a birch from a maple from an oak?

Eileen Lefter

Richmond, Virginia

The best way to start learning how to identify trees is to spend time in the field with an expert who’s familiar with your area’s flora and can teach you identification skills. Look for courses and workshops offered by universities and community colleges; environmental and hiking organizations; agricultural extension offices; and local, state and national parks. 

But practice is the key to developing ID skills, and of course you can’t always have an instructor with you. So, regardless of whether you’re able to take a workshop or two, the bulk of your tree-identification education will be self-taught. You’ll want to learn the various characteristic features of a tree — overall shape and height; leaf shape, type, size and vein pattern; branch pattern; bark topography; twig and bud arrangement; and more. All of these features, when considered carefully together, determine exactly what kind of tree you’re looking at. 

Books and websites are the best tools for this, and there are hundreds. Which to choose? First, think simple. Look for guides with clear, plain-language instructions on identification, straightforward drawings of significant tree features, and detailed but nontechnical species descriptions accompanied by photos or illustrations. 

Also, think local. There are more than 700 tree species in the United States. You’ll have an easier time identifying a tree in your backyard with a guide that’s not filled with hundreds of species that don’t grow anywhere near you. At the least, choose a guide limited to your half of the country. Better yet, look for one that’s devoted solely to your region or state. Local bookstores should be able to help. 

Use the same think-simple, think-local principle for selecting websites. I’ve listed some recommendations below, including a couple of examples of locally focused resources for your Virginia area. 

— Terry Krautwurst, contributing editor

Photo by IStockPhoto/Gunay Mutlu

Tree Identification Resources

A Field Guide to Eastern Trees and A Field Guide to Western Trees by George A. Petrides, Peterson Field Guide Series 

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees; available in Eastern and Western editions 

Tree Finder: A Manual for the Identification of Trees by Their Leaves by May T. Watts 

Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide by Kirkman, Brown and Leopold 

National Audubon Society’s Online Guide to North American Trees

Virginia Tech’s Basics of Tree ID