Identification of the Most Common Hardwoods

A Guide for North American Hardwood Tree Identification

Flowering magnolia tree at Arlington Cemetery

ForestWander/Wikimedia Commons/CC ASA 3.0

Hardwoods or broadleafs are trees classed as angiosperms or plants with ovules enclosed for protection in an ovary. When appropriately watered on good fertile sites or fed in the landscape with a special tree fertilizer mix, these ovules will rapidly develop into seeds. The seeds then drop from trees as acorns, nuts, samaras, drupes and pods.

Hardwoods have either simple or compound leaves. Simple leaves can be further divided into lobed and unlobed. Unlobed leaves may have a smooth edge (such as a magnolia) or a serrated edge (such as an elm).

The most common North American tree is the red alder. It has oval-shaped leaves and a reddish-brown bark. They can grow as tall as 100 feet and are found mostly in the western United States and Canada.

Difference Between Hardwood and Broadleaf

Broadleaf trees can be evergreen or they can persist in dropping their leaves over the entire winter. Most are deciduous and lose all their leaves over a short annual fall drop. These leaves can be either simple (single blades) or they can be​ compound with leaflets attached to a leaf stem. Although variable in shape, all hardwood leaves have a distinct network of fine veins.

Here is a quick leaf identification key of the common hardwoods in North America.

  • Hardwood: Trees with broad, flat leaves as opposed to coniferous or needled trees. Wood hardness varies among the hardwood species, and some are actually softer than some softwoods.
  • Deciduous Perennial plants which are normally leafless for some time during the year.
  • Broadleaf: A tree with leaves that are broad, flat and thin and generally shed annually.

Difference Between Hardwood and Softwood

The texture and density of the wood a tree produces puts it in either the hardwood or softwood category. Most hardwood trees are deciduous trees, which lose their leaves annually, like elm or maple. Soft wood comes from conifer (cone-bearing) or evergreen trees, such as pine or spruce.

The wood from hardwood trees tends to be harder because the trees grow at a slower rate, giving the wood its greater density.

Most Common Hardwoods

Unlike the conifers or softwood firs, spruce and pines, hardwood trees have evolved into a broad array of common species. The most common species in North America are oaks, maple, hickory, birch, beech and cherry.

Forests, where a majority of their trees drop leaves at the end of the typical growing season, are called deciduous forests. These forests are found worldwide and are located in either temperate or tropical ecosystems.

Deciduous trees, like oaks, maples, and elms, shed their leaves in the fall and sprout new ones every spring

Common North American Hardwood List

Here are some of the most common hardwood trees found in North America, along with their scientific names.