How to Identify North American Trees

Basswood Leaf

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The easiest way to identify North American trees is by looking at their branches. Do you see leaves or needles? Does the foliage last all year or is it shed annually? These clues will help you identify just about any hardwood or softwood tree you see in North America. Think you know your North American trees?

Hardwood Trees

Hardwoods are also known as angiosperms, broadleaf, or deciduous trees. They are abundant in the eastern forests of North America, though they can be found throughout the continent. Broadleaf trees, as the name suggests, bear leaves that vary in size, shape, and thickness. Most hardwoods shed their leaves annually; American holly and evergreen magnolias are two exceptions.

Deciduous trees reproduce by bearing fruit that contains a seed or seeds. Common types of hardwood fruit include acorns, nuts, berries, pomes (fleshy fruit like apples), drupes (stone fruit like peaches), samaras (winged pods), and capsules (flowers). Some deciduous trees, such as oak or hickory, are very hard indeed. Others, like birch, are fairly soft. 

Hardwoods have either simple or compound leaves. Simple leaves are just that: a single leaf attached to a stem. Compound leaves have multiple leaves attached to a single stem. Simple leaves can be further divided into lobed and unlobed. Unlobed leaves may have a smooth edge like a magnolia or a serrated edge like an elm. Lobed leaves have complex shapes that radiate either from a single point along the midrib like maple or from multiple points like white oak.

When it comes to the most common North American trees, the red alder is number one. Also known as Alnus rubra, its Latin name, this deciduous tree can be identified by oval-shaped leaves with serrated edges and a defined tip, as well as rust-red bark. Mature red alders range from about 65 feet to 100 feet in height, and they are generally found in the western U.S. and Canada.

Softwood Trees

Softwoods are also known as gymnosperms, conifers or evergreen trees. They are abundant throughout North America. Evergreens retain their needle- or scale-like foliage year-round; two exceptions are the bald cypress and tamarack. Softwood trees bear their fruit in the form of cones.

Common needle-bearing conifers include spruce, pine, larch, and fir. If the tree has scale-like leaves, then it is probably a cedar or juniper, which are also coniferous trees. If the tree has bunches or clusters of needles, it is pine or larch. If its needles are arrayed neatly along a branch, it's fir or spruce. The tree's cone can provide clues, too. Firs have upright cones that are often cylindrical. Spruce cones, by contrast, point downward. Junipers don't have cones; they have small clusters of blue-black berries.

The most common softwood tree in North America is the bald cypress. This tree is atypical in that it drops its needles annually, hence the "bald" in its name. Also known as Taxodium distichum, the bald cypress is found along the coastal wetlands and low-lying areas of the Southeast and Gulf Coast region. Mature bald cypress grows to a height of 100 to 120 feet. It has flat-bladed leaves about 1 cm in length that fans out along twigs. Its bark is gray-brown to red-brown and fibrous.

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Nix, Steve. "How to Identify North American Trees." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nix, Steve. (2023, April 5). How to Identify North American Trees. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "How to Identify North American Trees." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).