How to Identify Common North American Trees

North America is home to a huge variety of deciduous trees, the most common of which are the elm, willow, beech, cherry, birch, and basswood. These trees each have their own unique qualities, from the heart-shaped leaves of the birch to the interlocking wood grain of the elm. One of the easiest ways to identify one of these deciduous trees is by looking closely at its leaves. Their shape, structure, and texture can help you figure out which species you are looking at.

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Willow

willow leaves

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Willow trees can be identified by their long, narrow leaves, which have small toothed leaf margins. The leaf petioles, the stalks that attach the leaves to their stems, are usually short, with small stipules at the base that resemble very small leaves. Willow leaves are usually a solid variety of green, though some, such as the dappled willow, have a mixed coloring that includes shades of white, pink, and green.

While some willows are tall, others take the form of low, creeping shrubs, especially those that grow in colder regions. The dwarf willow, for example, grows just above the soil, making it one of the smallest woody plants in the world.

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Elm

leaves of elm tree

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Elm trees have leaves that are doubly toothed around the margins and usually asymmetrical at the base. They grow in an alternating pattern along the stem. Some elm leaves are smooth on one side and have a fuzzy texture on the other. Before producing leaves, elms often grow small clusters of petal-less flowers.

The American elm is known for its tough wood, which was used in the past to make wagon wheels. One of the most famous American elms is the Liberty Tree, which stood in Boston during the American Revolution. One of the first major colonial protests—a demonstration against the Stamp Act of 1765—took place around the tree.

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Birch

birch leaves in a pile

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Birch leaves are doubly toothed around the margins and symmetrical at the base, often forming a heart shape. In the fall, they turn a variety of brilliant colors, from golden yellow to deep red, making the birch a popular tree with landscapers. Many birches also have peeling bark, which give them added texture in the fall.

Birch leaves are rich in vitamin C and are used to make medicinal teas and infused oils, including some that are used as diuretics. Others are used to treat kidney and bladder infections, arthritis, rheumatism, and skin rashes.

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Cherry

black cherry leaf

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Cherry leaves have an elliptical shape and are saw-toothed around the edges, with very fine curved or blunt teeth. They are symmetrical at the base and about two to five inches long. The leaves have a slight sheen, and in the fall they turn a pale yellow before being shed.

Cherry trees often take on an umbrella shape as they grow, with the branches spreading out along the top. In North America, most cherry trees are found along the West Coast, in California, Oregon, and Washington, though they also grow in New York, Wisconsin, and other states.

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Beech

Beech leaves
American beech leaves.

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Beech leaves are toothed, with sharp, incurved teeth around the margins. Their surfaces are smooth and paper-like. In North America, all beech trees have green leaves. (Some varieties in Europe have yellow, purple, or mixed coloring. The copper beech, for example, has deep red or purple leaves that turn lighter in the fall.)

The American beech is found in the eastern United States and in southeast Canada. It has smooth, gray bark and grows up to 115 feet tall. Because of its tough, strong wood, the American beech is often used for lumber. The tree's nuts are a source of food for squirrels, foxes, deer, black bears, and a variety of other animals.

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Basswood

basswood leaves
American Basswood leaves and flowers.

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Basswood leaves are broad (about as wide as they are long) and oval-shaped. Around the edges they are coarsely saw-toothed, and they are slightly asymmetrical around the base. The leaves grow in an alternating pattern along the stem. Unlike cherry tree leaves, which have a slight sheen, basswood leaves have a dull, matte texture.

The American basswood is also known as the American linden tree. It produces small, pale flowers whose nectar is consumed by a range of insects. Other animals feed on the tree's leaves and bark.