Tree Identification - Laural Gailor and Robert Beyfuss

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Warren County, Warrensburg, NY 12885 and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene County, Cairo, NY 12413


Know Your Trees

(The following material was excerpted from a 4-H Youth Bulletin written by J.A. Cope and F. E. Winch, Jr. 4-H Bulletin #85, published 1948; revised 1981).

Forest Appreciation

Since one-half of the entire land area of New York State is better adapted to

growing trees than to any other use, forestry is a vital part of agriculture

Work in forestry appeals to boys and girls because of its outdoor nature and the possibility of combining activities in nature study, conservation, camping, and woodcraft

Because of the number of years required to grow a crop of wood, you, as future land owners, will reap the direct benefit of the principles learned and the work undertaken.

To have a real appreciation of the forest is to know the importance of the forest to agriculture and industry, to have a thorough knowledge of the trees in the forest, and to know the relative values of these trees in producing crops of timber. The first step, therefore, for you to appreciate the forest is to become familiar with the various kinds of trees, the individuals of the forest community. They must be met at home, in the forest where they can be found in conditions most natural to their growth. Each kind of tree has certain characteristics that distinguish it from other trees. No two trees have bark, leaves, and fruit exactly alike. The wood of each kind of tree varies as much as the external characteristics, and upon these variations depends the use to which that wood may be put. In growing timber for a definite use or in choosing trees to be cut for a certain purpose, you must know what woods can be put to that use or will answer that purpose.

This bulletin has been prepared to assist you in becoming better acquainted with the forest trees of your neighborhood. Probably a hundred distinct varieties of trees are native to the State, but some of them are so small that they are in this State scarcely more than shrubs and do not deserve to be classed as trees. In such a group are the alder, the pussy willow, and the witch-hazel. Still other varieties, while of real forest-tree size, are confined to very limited localities, such as the willow oak and the sweet gum on Long Island. No attempt has been made, therefore, to provide an all-inclusive list of trees in this publication, but rather to pick out and to describe the more common trees that are generally dis tributed throughout the State and that you are likely to find in the average woodlot.

With this bulletin as a guide, it should be possible for every boy and girl electing the forestry and conservation projects to become familiar with all the forest trees in their neighborhood. As future woodland owners, this basic knowledge of the trees of the forest will put you in a position to cut wisely and well in bringing about better forests.

How to Use This Bulletin

The place, of course, to study the trees is in the woods; take along this bulletin and look for the characters—bark, twigs, buds, leaves, and fruit.

Pay considerable attention to the bark. It is always present, summer and winter, and even in the log you can tell the tree if you know the bark. The points mentioned in the text, such as color and texture, whether smooth or furrowed, scaly or firm, all should be remembered.

The twigs are interesting to study in the winter time. They, too, vary in color; some are brittle, while others are tough and pliable; some are slender, while others are coarse. A taste of the twig often helps to identify the tree, as for example, the cherries or the black birch.

The buds go along with the twigs as part of the winter study of the trees. Frequently it may be important to be able to recognize a forest seedling in the early spring before the leaves are out. Particularly if you want to transplant the seedling. This would also be true if it were a valuable forest tree, such as a sugar maple, and it was desired to cut around it to give it more light. In such instances the buds are a helpful means of identification. All deciduous-leaved trees are listed as having or lacking a terminal bud.

Study the winter twigs carefully. It is obvious that hickories have a terminal bud as do also the maples and the ashes. But you must watch out when the basswood, the elms, and the birches are found. They may look at first glance as if they had a terminal bud, but on closer examination it is evident that there is really a leaf scar on the end of the twig and the bud is a little below and to one side. The color of buds also is helpful; for example, by a glance at the color of the bud you can tell at once whether the tree is a soft or a hard maple. Buds, like the leaves, are arranged on the twig in an opposite or alternate pattern. This helps you to tell some trees apart.

Leaves are, for those just starting in the study of our forest trees, the easiest approach. As you study the leaves and compare them, look for the following points: Are they simple (one leaf to a stem) or compound? Are they arranged opposite on the twig or alternate? How is the margin of the leaf shaped? This is most important. In some leaves the margin is entire (no breaks at all): in some, it is like the fine teeth of a carpenter's saw, and these are called serrate (saw-like); still others are doubly serrate; in others, the margin is more deeply notched, as in the chestnut, the beech, and the bigtoothed aspen, and these we have called toothed. Then come the oaks and some others where the margin is very deeply cut and the leaves are described as lobed, and the hollows between are called clefts.

Trees have flowers as do most green plants, but usually the blooms are not noticeable high up in treetops where you cannot easily see them to aid in identification. Then, too, they are present only for a very brief season. In the interest of using available space for more important identifications, the description of flowers has been left out.

The fruit of the forest trees is an important item in the appreciation of the forest, not so much as a means of identifying the tree, but as recognizing the seeds from which the diflferent forest trees spring. Fruit, it should be remembered, does not mean in this connection necessarily fleshy, edible products, such as apples or cherries, but includes any seed and the covering in which it develops, whether cone, pod, samara (winged-seed), burr, or husk. Note carefully the time of year the seed matures; this is given in each description in the text.

Some brief mention is also made of the uses of the tree and where it is to be found growing naturally. This should round out the knowledge and appreciation of the trees of your community.

Learning to know the names of your "tree neighbors" is like playing a detective game. With certain "clues," such as color of the bark, size and branching of the twig, shape of the bud, and form of the leaf, the names of the tree can be "tracked down."

After you learn the names of the trees in your neighborhood, you may want to know whether they are "good" trees or "poor" trees for forest crops.

Summer and Winter Keys

As a further help to the identification of these fifty trees in both summer and winter condition, keys have been made.

A key is a scheme for easily and quickly identifying any unknown object under observation. It is based usually on the most striking similarities and differences shown-by the various parts of the object. In trees, the leaves have been selected for the summer key and the twigs and buds for the winter key as presenting the most easily available parts of the tree for showing differences and similarities.

Two alternatives are presented, either a character is or is not present; these are the only choices possible. The two opposed characters are preceded in the key by the same number (1 and 1 or 2 and 2) and are set at the same distance from the left-hand margin of the page. Often times, 1 and 1 are subdivided further into other groups on the basis of other differences; in every case, however, the characters are opposed. If you find the desired character in the first group, there is no need to look in the second group, and study need be confined to the subdivisions of the first group only. In this key it has been found advisable to make an exception to this general scheme if there are more than two species in the same genus. Here each species is separated from others in the genus under the same number or letter whether three or more species are included. Also, in the summer key, where the shape of the leaf presents a very easily distinguished characteristic, the variation in the shapes, such as linear, lanccolalte, ovate, and so forth, has made necessary the inclusion of more than two key numbers in the same group. This is true also in the subdivisions where leaf margins are considered.

Here is an example of the way to use the summer key (editor’s note - you’ll need a copy of the bulletin to fully understand the following section). A branch with leaves is taken from a tree. The leaves are broad so this falls under the second 1 on page 7 (note that each number is in pairs, two 1's, two 2's and so on, and that each one of a pair contains different characters or details). Thc twigs and leaves are in pairs (opposite) so this character falls under the first 8 (if the twigs were not opposite, the character would fall under the second 8, or alternate arrangement). The leaves are compound (several leaflets on one stem) so the next clue is in the second 9 (page 7). The leaflets have no stems, but sit tight on the main stem or petiole of the leaf. The tree is black ash.

Another branch, taken in the late fall, has no leaves, and must be traced through the winter key on pages 9 through 12. The twigs have no pitchy taste or wart-like branches found under the second 1, but are slim without a terminal bud. Under the second 3 are the characters for trees with alternate arran~,rement of buds and twigs. Since no termin~l bll(l is present, it is necessary to turn to the second 5 wllicll is on page 11. Closc ol)servation at the side or lateral bud reveals many bud scales. This leads to the second 1. The buds are fair-sized, which comes under the second 20. Tlle twigs are zig-zag, and the buds are "hump backed" and greenish-red. At last the trail has ended with the name of the tree, which is basswood.

The most important distinguishing characteristics of trees in the summertime are tlle form, arrangement, shape, and margin of the leaves. In the wintertime, the size, color, and arrangement of the twigs are important, and the position (terminal or not), size, shape, and color of the bud. Be sure you thoroughly understand these illustrations and learn the distinctions before you attempt to use the key or go into the field.

Once the name of the tree has been discovered in the key, you can make a check by turning to the number listed in parentheses before tlle name. For example, (48) Basswood is found on page 62. If the description of the tree given on this page does not check with the twig, trace the specimen again through the key. A small "clue" may lead the "trail" in a new direction, and finally to the right tree.

(copies of this 4-H bulletin "Know Your Trees", Cornell Cooperative Extension 4-H Bulletin # 85 are available through your local office of Cornell Cooperative Extension, or by calling (607) 255 - 4696. Call in advance for pricing and quantities)

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