How to Identify Trees & Their Leaves

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Things You'll Need

  • Tape measure

  • Notebook and pen

  • Leaf reference book or field notes

Identifying a tree's leaves and structure helps you appreciate its splendor.

Identifying a tree by its leaves and other physical characteristics leads you to naming the tree correctly. Other considerations, such as the tree's regional habitat and growth habits, also can help with identification. Coniferous, deciduous and tropical trees, for example, each have individual leaf structures, heights, seeds and fruits. To note tree characteristics and identify trees, go out into a forest or wooded area with a notebook and information on tree species.


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Step 1

Determine the tree's leaf structure by examining one leaf. Consult a reference book if you are unfamiliar with leaf types. Identify whether the leaf is glossy or waxy. Tropical tree leaves, such as palms, are usually waxy and ribbed so that water drips into the tree's roots. Coniferous tree leaves, such as pine needles, are long and thin and stay green all year.

Step 2

Determine whether the leaf structure is simple or compound. Pick a leaf off the ground or study a leaf, without picking it, on the tree itself. Notice if one leaf grows off one stem, making it a simple structure, or if one leaf stem carries three or more leaves, which makes it compound. Note also whether the leaf has "teeth," a jagged edge, or if it is lobed, meaning rounded on the edges. An elm tree, for example, has a simple structure with a serrated edge.


Step 3

Note whether the tree's branches are thicker or thinner. Also note whether the limbs are more vertical than horizontal. An oak tree, for instance, has almost horizontal limbs that stretch out like straight roots. Use a reference book to check whether the tree limbs match any in the book.

Step 4

Examine the trunk. If you have the tree in front of you, feel the tree's bark texture. Measure the circumference. Maple trees, for example, usually have grooved bark that looks like it's peeling off the tree. Coconut palm trees, on the other hand, have smooth, narrow trunks. Jot notes in your notebook to remember these details if you are still unsure about the tree type.


Step 5

Try the fruit. If a tree has fruit, whether edible or in seed form, examine it to identify the tree. Pine trees have pine cones, inedible fruits that are packed with seeds. Mango trees have soft, succulent fruits with one hard, long seed in the center. If the fruit is safe to eat, try a bite and write notes about the flavor. If you are unsure whether to eat the fruit, do not taste it. Instead, take it home to examine and dissect for identification.


Do not pick pine cones off pine trees -- the seed-packs are important to birds and other animals throughout the winter.