Though the exact definitions vary slightly, a tree sapling is a growing, young tree. As a general rule, they have a diameter from 1 to 5 inches at a point measured at 4 1/2 feet from the ground and are sold in containers, bare-root or balled and burlapped. Since young trees may not show their main distinguishing features (thick, dark bark, for example) until they are older, it can be hard to tell what kind of sapling you are dealing with unless you know what to look for.
Identifying a Sapling Tree
The main things to look at when identifying tree saplings are the leaves, and there are three main categories that you can break them down into for identification purposes. The first two are needles and scales, which you can find on most evergreens and many other conifers and deciduous trees. The third is broadleaf, and these leaves are broad and flat with prominent veins throughout the upper part of the leaf. There are exceptions, though, such as the live oak evergreen with elliptical, broad leaves.
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If it is a broadleaf, you will want to start by examining its shape. Common shapes that you'll find in the wild include round (orbicular), triangular (deltoid), heart-shaped (cordate), lanceolate (narrow and long) and ovate (egg-shaped). Oak leaves have lobes, and maple leaves are palm-shaped. Some broadleaves are compound with separate leaflets of different shapes and sizes, and these leaves may also have smooth or distinctive edges.
Sapling Tree Leaves
A white ash tree (Fraxinus americana, USDA hardiness zones 2-9) has five to nine leaflets that are all the same size in most cases. Another example of a compound leaf structure can be seen on a box elder sapling (Acer negundo, USDA hardiness zones 2-9). This one has three to five leaflets, green twigs and coarse-toothed edges. The black walnut (Juglans nigra, USDA hardiness zones 4-9) is more extended, with eight to 16 leaflets, no end leaflets and a droopy appearance.
Trees with lobed leaves include white oak (Juglans nigra, USDA hardiness zones 4-9), with varying numbers of narrow and rounded lobes that feature white undersides. The sycamore (Platanus occidentalis, USDA hardiness zones 7-10) leaf is broader, with large sections and toothed edges. Sugar maples (Acer saccharum, USDA hardiness zones 3-8) have three lobes, also with those toothed edges. An example of a sapling tree with heart-shaped leaves is the eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides, USDA hardiness zones 2-9).
Evergreen Tree Saplings
If your sapling has needles or scales, it is most definitely a young evergreen. Scale evergreen leaves are flat, overlapping branchlets and are scaly instead of "needly." One of these trees is the Leyland cypress (Cupressus × leylandii, USDA hardiness zones 6-10), and its leaves are bright green in the sapling stage.
The eastern white pine (Pinus strobus, USDA hardiness zones 3-8) has evenly spaced branches and bluish-green needles, while a typical Norway pine tree (Pinus resinosa, USDA hardiness zones 3-7) has dark green, sharp ones. You can identify the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii, USDA hardiness zones 4-6) by its dark green or bluish-green 1.5-inch needles that are attached singularly (and completely) over brown branches.
The pretty Norway spruce (Picea abies, USDA hardiness zones 3-7) has short, soft green needles, while its cousin, the white spruce (Picea glauca, USDA hardiness zones 2-6), produces lighter green, fuzzy-looking ones. The Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens, USDA hardiness zones 3-7) has bluish, waxy, 1-inch needles that grow radially on upward-curving branches. A final evergreen example is the stunning Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens, USDA hardiness zone 7), with its pleasant-smelling, silvery-blue or soft, dark green needles.