looking among the leaves: tree identification

RAKE, RAKE, RAKE—but do you look at what’s in the burgeoning piles? It’s not just recognizable leaves from trees and shrubs in the immediate yard and garden, but also lots of immigrants that the wind (no, not the cat) dragged in. I stopped yesterday between wheelbarrow loads to identify some of the showiest of the bunch—or just marvel at them. How to identify trees and shrubs by their leaves, and otherwise.

I’ve had a couple of charming little pocket-sized books for many years, that show simple but precise outlines of the parts of woody plants—especially their leaves—and that’s where I started: with “Identify Trees and Shrubs by Their Leaves,” a Dover Publications product with 215 Eastern species included. It’s how I got to Number 87, a poplar (top photo). Even smaller, and even more challenging—but still a lot of fun, if you like treasure hunts: “Winter Tree Finder” from Nature Study Guild, and from the same series, “Tree Finder.” You can get them online for about $5 apiece, and there are Pacific Coast versions of the basic pocket tree finder (plus a Rocky Mountain one).

From the Peterson’s series, “A Field Guide to Eastern Trees” has the luxury of color photos, and lots more information, of course (mine’s an old, old copy). There is a Western version of the Peterson’s Guide, among many choices of guides to tree ID.

But I had some fun with online ID tools, too—though I admit I often get lost about halfway through the keying-out process, always failing to answer one of the process-of-elimination questions wrong and going down the wrong path. No matter, really–because every path leads to more learning about more woody plants.

But as it says in big red letters on the tool of all tools, from so-called Dr. Dendro (for dendrology, or the scientific study of trees) at Virginia Tech:

‘Only make selections that you are sure about – or you might accidentally eliminate the answer!’

Dr. Dendro is actually Dr. John Seiler, and you can use the Virginia Tech tool starting with a leaf, a twig, or both.

What Tree Is It, a web-based reference, from the Ohio Public Library Information Network and the Ohio Historical Society, uses leaves and/or fruit (and focuses on trees common to Ohio—though many are also throughout the East, so relevant to me).

And with beautiful photos there is Rogers Trees and Shrubs, where you can start from leaf images (not dissimilar to the way I use my field guide, though it includes lots of ornamentals of garden, not woodland, familiarity). You can add your own images to the collection.

So what were the gleaming golden leaves that flew in on a storm this week (the ones at the top of the page)? A poplar of some kind, and based on the exaggerated teeth on the leaf edges, I suppose Populus grandidentata, the bigtooth aspen (the teeth seem too pronounced for the quaking aspen, and though we have cottonwoods here, hmmm…those looked less coarse, too, but I only have the leaves and a twig to go on).

I love the giant leaves of Eastern sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), above, and the mitten-like ones of native sassafras (Sassafras albidum), too, below, among other showoffs. (For a quick look at common fall-foliage stars of the Northeast, I found this one-pager from the I Love NY tourism site.)

So what’s in your leaf pile, besides the garden things you planted? Do have a look—and do tell.

  1. Sandie Anne says:

    Thanks for those great links on tree identification. I have a small tree that keeps trying to grow right next to my porch and I keep cutting it back. Now I will be able to figure out what it is! Thanks again!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Jamie. I have always used Nikons (currently D-700 or D-7000), and I can’t say I really know how to use digital ones as well as I understood film and regular cameras. It’s like a computer — and so many buttons and settings, so complicated — so I sort of go on instinct and probably use 1/100th of the camera’s capabilities. There is a whole range of Nikon digital SLR cameras to choose from. Among lenses I love a 60mm micro (you can get really close to things if you like, or not) and a 28-45 mm that also has a macro setting.

  2. bud stockwell says:

    Another option is an app called leafsnap. It needs a white background so it’s not great in the field. You take a picture and often get an answer. Still love my books but this is a fun alternative.


  3. Linda says:

    I have a Vancouver Centennial geranium. I love it’s colorful leaves as well as the beautiful neon orange blooms. Can I bring it in and overwinter it the same as my other geraniums?

  4. I’ve never met a Sasafrass. What characterful leaves it has.

    The beautiful line drawing chart suggests some leaves might be difficult to identify if one didn’t also have a load of others with which to compare them.

  5. Peg says:

    Funny you should mention leaves-you-have-to-rake-but-are-not-from-your-trees. I always wonder where the poplar leaves come from. There are no poplar trees on my 16 acres. Depends on which way the wind blows during which storm what orphans end up in my yard.
    I have a baby Sasafrass in a pot rght now growing big enough so I can find it after I plant it outside. Lovely leaves, lovely scent. Nice tea too.
    Off to the 2013 opening of the artpacks for the Hudson Valley Seed Library in a few minutes. Take a look at the new offerings..

  6. Jenn Sweeney says:

    Hi, I really enjoy your site, thankyou- albeit from the opposite season. Do you know of comparable identification references for trees in Australia? Anyone? Thanks

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Jenn, and hello! I don’t know similar guides, sorry to say. I guess a little internet searching is in order… :)

  7. Elizabeth Victory says:

    Dr. Dendro is my Dad!! That was pretty awesome, to be reading this post, and then, hey! That’s my dad! haha. I would highly recommend their new FREE app… just search for Virginia Tech Tree ID :)

    1. margaret says:

      Love it, Elizabeth. How funny is that? Great tool — and I didn’t include apps (since phones barely work where I am lost in a rural black hole) but I promise to do a story on them, too.
      I should do a Q&A interview with him. Fascinating program they have.

  8. Dr. Dendro says:

    FYI…once the Virginia Tech Tree Identification app is down loaded it will work anywhere…even in a phone black hole. To download it, do it while on a fast WiFi connection like at a local library. Then once installed you can use it even in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Dr. Dendro, er, Seiler. Very helpful. I so don’t bother with apps on my smartphone as mentioned, basically only using it for when I am on the road, but now you have encouraged me. Will plan to do a post about it after I explore.

  9. We’ve had the Winter Tree Finder book forever too! Recently, my 16 year old son really got into trees and his fav guide is The Sibley Guide to Trees (though he wishes Kenn Kaufman would come out with one too). He’s pretty much memorized the native trees of our state though. And he’s gotten into the whole eradicating invasive species and repopulating with native ones. I think the DNR could hire him. ;)

    Will let him know about the online resources, thanks!

  10. mikeinportc says:

    My first inclination on those poplar leaves was Bigtooth Aspen. Re the Sassafrass , there’s three leaf shapes : the ones you ‘ve shown, with two side lobes, some with just a “thumb”, and some with none (entire). Where the outer canopy is in the sun, the leaves tend to be entire.

    A good ID tool for winter, is “Fruit Key & Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs”, by William H. Harlow .

  11. Lindsay says:

    Love this post! Every year at this time I mourn that I don’t know the trees in my own yard. And many of them, I swear, are your very first photo above! I’d zeroed in on bigtooth aspen as their likely ID, too, but it’s great to have some confirmation. I’m also iPhone-inclined and love an app called Leafsnap: you take a picture of your leaf, and it suggests possible matches. It also has good photos of bark, fruit, and flower, if you have those on hand. I’m not sure if this is the same one that was referenced above or not. And those sassafras leaves: gorgeous!

  12. Sharon says:

    I took a wonderful walk with Dr. Dendro as part of my Master Gardener training. Funny, intimidating, but so much fun. I’d love to take his class, but not in winter when you ID from bark and twigs……

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