Tree Identification

Tree Identification: The Arbor Day Field Guide

cotton wood leaves

Tree Identification: What Tree is That?

I know that trees aren't the fuzzy charismatic mega-fauna that most people adore and love, but they are an important part of our world, from ecosystem services to wood products and even the lowly toilet paper. Being able to walk into the woods and identify trees is like going into someone's home and saying hello to friends. It creates a familiarity with your surroundings and helps you to understand what is going on around you. For instance, the presence of willows means water and the presence of sweet gums means the land was probably disturbed in the not too distant past. All forests tell stories, you just have to know what trees you're looking at, and what their presence means.

arbor day guide
The Arbor Day website lets you choose your region in North America (Photo: Arbor Day Website).

In this vein (and because it makes a wonderful holiday gift) I want to introduce you to a great resource for tree identification. The Arbor Day Foundation has developed a user friendly website based on tree ID. Their online edition has an intuitive multiple choice guide that walks you through tree identification by leaf, leaf arrangement, flower, and fruit. To go along with the website there is an app and an easy to carry printed tree ID guide.

arbor app
The Arbor Day mobile app is one choice as a tree identification tool (Photo: Arbor Day Website).

The website can be used on a PC or mac but the app is for iPhone. It's $5 but goes to a good cause. Some of the reviews of the app are less than stellar, mainly because folks were looking for photos and not drawings, and/or they were looking for tree ID in all seasons.

The app, website, and book are best used during leaf-in. They are designed for beginning to intermediate botanists. I find that it's written at about a 6th grade to adult level. It's kid friendly and can be used for the Eastern or Western US. You can click here to be taken directly to their site.

arbord day book
The Arbor Day Foundation field guide to tree identification (Photo: Arbor Day Website).

As an outdoor educator I like to actually get kids and adults into the field, holding and touching leaves, looking at bark, and studying leave placement and veination. Because of this I tend to like paper field guides. The best filed guides are those that have easy dichotomous choices/keys and hand drawn images. Photos are very misleading and show only one leaf, on one plant, at one time. Photos can't represent the wide range of variability in leaf shape that an artist can. The Arbor Day book is a pocket guide called "What Tree is That? A Guide to The More Common Trees Found in North America." It is long an narrow so it fits in a back pocket. It's also laminated, has a quick index of botanical terms and definitions in the front, and a ruler in the back. The images hand drawn and laid out in a dichotomous key style, sort of like the old school "choose your own adventure books." I've found the books work well for ages 12 to adult, but can be used for younger kids with supervision. For 1-4 books they cost about $15 from the Arbor Day Foundation website, but they go down to $12 if you order 5 or more (and they make great stocking stuffers for those looking for gifts around the holidays). If you'd like to check out a sample of pages from the book, then click on the right hand navigation pane of their website, that says, "Look inside for a preview."

winter tree book

There are quite a few good tree identification field guides, but this is my favorite for teaching. You can find many others for varying degrees of skill level. If you're looking for a winter field guide try the "Winter Tree Finder" book. Consider this book as a great stocking stuffer, spring or summer birthday gift, or just to keep in your library for reference. Happy tree IDing!