How To Identify a Tree, Part 2

Last week, we gave you an introduction into how to identify a tree. This week we continue with that information, so you’ll know how to identify a tree without any problems. We were working on leaves and needles. Let’s continue.

Leaves (Continued)

Leaves have many distinguishing characteristics. They are, in essence, a study in and of themselves.

Leaf Base

The leaf base is important to know about when identifying a tree because leaves that are closely related to each other will show similar characteristics in their leaf bases. For example, elms have leaves with a characteristic asymmetrical base. The leaf base does not equally meet the leaf stalk.

Leaf Texture

Leaves can be dull, glossy or hairy. Look at both sides of the leaf to see whether the hairs cover the whole leaf or just one side.

Leaf Color

Leaf color is most important if the leaves change color before they fall off. In Texas, we don’t have an autumn change per se, so this may not be the best indicator of which type of tree you are looking at. However, some trees turn vivid colors before they go brown and fall off the tree. If you can find out which ones do that, then you’re well on your way to identifying the tree.

If the tree has needles or scales, then it’s a conifer. You can tell a lot by whether they are needles or scales. Most conifers have the needles or scales on the tree all year round that you can use for identification. We’re not sure that there are many conifers in Texas, but it’s important to note in case you’re in other parts of the country or world and looking at trees.


Many trees flower at a particular time of year. When they are present, they can be very helpful in tree identification.

Tree Reproduction

Trees have different strategies when it comes to reproduction. Broadleaf trees, for example, have flowers that contain the reproductive organs and conifers have cones for reproduction.

  • Hermaphroditic trees, such as cherries, produce flowers with both male and female parts.
  • Unisexual trees include birches and have male and female parts on separate flowers.
  • Monoecious trees, such as alder, have separate male and female flowers on the same tree.
  • Dioecious trees, like holly and yew, have separate male and female trees entirely.

Flowers arrangement

Flowers occur in a variety of shapes, sizes and arrangements.

  • Solitary flowers are single flowers appearing by themselves on different parts of the tree.
  • Clusters are many small flowers that form together in large branched groups such as in the elder tree.
  • Catkins are dense, hanging spikes of tiny inconspicuous flowers such as those of the willow tree.


Some flowers are so tiny that you have to be up close to see them. Male and female flowers can also look very different from each other on the same tree. A flower’s color can vary. For some species, however, they can be a defining feature. Apple and blackthorn flowers are usually white while catkins are almost always yellow-green. Ash flowers are a deep purple-red.

Fruits and Seeds

Just like flowers, fruits and seeds tend to appear at certain times of the year. They can be great identifiers for a tree. They vary in shape, appearance and size from hard nuts to berries. You’ll want to look at the color and feel the texture of the fruit. Is the outer surface smooth, hairy, prickly, rough or papery? Is it soft, hard or dry? You may want to open up the fruit to identify a tree. What do the seeds look like inside?

Fruits of Broadleaf Trees

They vary greatly and include:

  • Samaras are papery winged fruits. The wings can be in pairs (field maple and sycamore) or single (hornbeam).
  • Nuts are usually dry and woody. Some are unmistakable like the shiny brown sweet chestnuts inside prickly casings.
  • Catkins are long and dangly and become fluffy masses of seeds in summer. They are often found on willows and birches.
  • Berries are soft and juicy fruits that contain several seeds.
  • Stone fruits have a fleshy exterior and a single stone inside like plums do.
  • Apples or pears are larger, fleshy fruits with many seeds inside.
  • Capsules are seeds contained inside capsules of varying shapes and colors like the bright pink capsules of spindle which split open to reveal bright orange seeds.
  • Cones occur in trees like the alder. They can be dry and woody and appear on the tree all year long.

Leaf Buds and Twigs

It can be hard to identify a tree, especially in winter. Leafs buds and twigs can provide some identifying clues.

Leaf Bud Arrangement and Position

Leaf buds are usually present on twigs throughout the winter. When they are at the end of the twig, they are called terminal buds. These are often the largest buds. Those growing along the twig are lateral buds and can have any one of three arrangements.

  • Alternate occur in pairs arranged in turn on opposite sides of the stem.
  • Opposite occur in pairs placed directly on either side of the stem.
  • Spiral buds whorl alternately around the stem.

How the buds are held on the twig also provide a subtle clue. For example, willow buds are tightly pressed against the twig whereas those of oak and beech stick out at a right angle from the twig.

Leaf Bud Shape and Appearance

Some trees have distinctively shaped buds. Many others have oval shaped buds. You may need to use something else to figure out what kind of tree it is. Trees with characteristic buds include beech with its sharply pointed straight-sided buds and hose chestnut with red sticky buds. Oaks, elms and birches all have small scales which protect the bud inside.

Twigs Appearance and Texture

To identify a tree by its twigs, you should look at the twig texture and determine if it’s either smooth or hairy. Spines could indicate you’re looking at a blackthorn. If they are corky ribs, you may be looking at an alder. Twig color can be subjective but there are a few trees where it is a key feature, particularly on new growth. There are a few species where color can help identification including the red of dogwood, the greens and yellows of willows and dark purple-black of blackthorn. Alder buckthorn twigs have orange markings called lenticels.

As you can see from both of our articles on how to identify a tree, there are many ways to identify a tree. Trees have many distinguishing characteristics. It takes a sharp eye and a little know-how to identify a tree. With practice, you can learn to do it. Have questions about your trees? Please give us a call at 512-341-8888. We’re Austin Tree Service and we’re happy to help you with your trees.