Tree Identification

How to tell trees apart

There are a variety of characteristics that you can count on as useful tree identification aids. Some characteristics are common among all members of a genus, while some are specific to a particular species. For instance, all oaks have simple, alternate leaves. However, in Missouri only shingle oak has banana-shaped leaves. Both the similarities and the differences are useful identification tools.

Listed below are genuses or species that display characteristics useful for identification. They are trees, including a few ornamentals and shrubs, are commonly found in Missouri forests.

Opposite branching

Trees with this characteristic bear their leaves and twigs in opposite positions on the stem. This trait can be very obvious on younger stems, but look closely on older stems, which can be affected by harsh weather and environmental conditions.

  • Ash
  • Eastern wahoo
  • Horse chestnut
  • American bladdernut
  • Ohio buckeye
  • Dogwood (except alternate leaf dogwood)
  • Blackhaw or rusty viburnum
  • Maple (includes boxelder)

Compound leaves

Trees with this characteristic bear multiple leaflets in a variety of patterns and numbers according to species. All true leaves have a bud at the base of the leaf stem; leaflets don't have buds at their bases. Although compound leaves are not present in winter, large leaf scars generally indicate a compound leaf. Usually you can find the rachises (the rachis is the stem-like formation that holds the leaflets of a compound leaf) on the ground below the tree with minute leaflet scars on them. With these, you can determine numbers of leaflets and patterns.

  • Ash
  • Box elder (only maple represented)
  • Common prickly-ash
  • Hickory
  • Honey locust (often double compound)
  • American bladdernut
  • Black walnut
  • Kentucky coffee tree (double compound)
  • Common hoptree
  • Pecan
  • Ohio buckeye (palmately compound)
  • Yellowwood
  • Butternut
  • Black locust

Zigzag Twig Conformation

Trees with this characteristic do not have a bud at the end of the stem. Therefore, they display a zigzag pattern as the twig grows. This is more obvious on some species than others, but it is always a useful identification aid. This can be especially helpful in winter.

  • Elm
  • American basswood
  • American sycamore
  • Hackberry
  • Redbud
  • Sugarberry
  • Mulberry
  • Osage orange
  • Honey locust
  • Eastern hop hornbeam
  • American hornbeam
  • Black locust

Thorns, spines, or spurs

Trees with prickly appendages on their stems are easy to identify. Trees with modified branches, such as honey locust; prickly stipules, such as black locust; and thorns, such as hawthorn, fit in this group. As trees age, thorns may be lost or altered, but when they are present they are helpful.

  • Honey locust (may be absent)
  • Hawthorn
  • Black locust
  • Pear
  • Gum bumelia
  • Crabapple
  • Carolina buckthorn
  • Apple
  • Osage orange
  • Common prickly-ash

Odor or taste

Many trees and shrubs are fragrant, or their twigs have a distinct flavor.

  • Black cherry blossoms are very fragrant.
  • Spicebush twigs have a sharp, spicy flavor.
  • Sassafras twigs taste like root beer.
  • Aromatic sumac leaves have has a strong, astringent fragrance when crushed.
  • Tree-of-heaven (an invader) blossoms are fragrant.
  • Downy serviceberry blossoms emit a sweet, musty fragrance.

Corky ridges

Many trees have rough, knobby appendages on their bark. They may vary from few to many, short to tall, common to intermittent, etc. Though they may not be always present, they are useful when identifying trees.

  • Hackberry
  • Sugarberry
  • Winged elm
  • Sweetgum
  • Eastern cottonwood (on vigorous trees)
  • Bur oak

Pith of stem

These characteristics are very helpful if you carry a pocketknife. The pith is the soft, sponge-like material at the center of a stem or branch. Though typically white and round, color and shape may vary.

  • Black walnut: chambered and buff-colored
  • Butternut: chambered and chocolate brown
  • Kentucky coffee tree: orange to salmon
  • Tree-of-heaven: Reddish

Sticky or shiny buds

  • Eastern cottonwood
  • Eastern hop hornbeam
  • Sweetgum
  • Lombardy poplar
  • Shumard oak (at maturity)
  • American bladdernut

Number of bud scales

Buds without cover scales are referred to as naked. Some buds will have one scale completely covering the bud; some will have two. Others may have many multiples of scales.

  • Bitternut hickory (sulfur yellow) (0)
  • American sycamore (1)
  • Black willow (1)
  • Pawpaw (dark brown) (0)
  • Black walnut (cream color) (0)
  • American basswood (2)
  • Butternut (light brown) (0)
  • Yellow poplar (2)
  • Pecan (pale yellow) (0)
  • Carolina buckthorn (light brown) (0)
  • Ashes (brown) (0)

Inconspicuous buds

On some branches, the buds are barely visible or are entirely surrounded by the twig.

  • Osage orange
  • Honey locust
  • Kentucky coffee tree
  • Black locust
  • Catalpa
  • Tree-of-heaven

Sharp-pointed buds

Some buds are sharp and hard to the touch. Occasionally they are elongated, but they still have a sharp point.

  • Downy serviceberry
  • Sugar maple
  • Slippery elm
  • River birch
  • Winged elm
  • Northern red oak
  • Red mulberry
  • Black oak
  • Ohio buckeye
  • Blackjack oak
  • Shingle oak