Basics of Tree ID


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The first step in using leaves to identify trees is to determine if the tree has needle-like foliage (conifers or gymnosperms) or broad leaves (angiosperms). Trees with needle leaves are often called softwoods because their wood is generally soft. Broadleaf trees are often called hardwoods because their wood is generally hard. There are (of course) exceptions to this broadleaf/needleleaf split - ginkgo is a gymnosperm with very broad leaves!
a needle leaf
Virginia pine has needles. Needles are found on most conifers and gymnosperms.
a broad leaf
American chestnut has a broad leaf. Most angiosperms are broadleaves.

Broadleaf species can also be classified as either simple (one leaf blade) or compound (several to many leaflets per leaf). While a compound leaf looks like a number of simple leaves attached to a twig, the rachis (the midrib to which the leaflets attach) has no buds, is not particularly woody, and is shed in the fall.
northern red oak leaves
Simple leaves have a single leaf blade, as seen on northern red oak.
black walnut leaves
Compound leaves have several leaflets attached to a midrib or rachis, as seen on this black walnut leaf.

Leaves can grow on conifers as either scales, single needles, or in groups called fascicles. Cedar leaves grow as scales. Spruces, firs, hemlocks as well as others grow single needles. Pines grow needles in fascicles, or bundles of needles.
northern white-cedar scales
Scales of a northern white-cedar.
hemlock needles
Single-needles of a hemlock.
Table Mountain pine fascicles
Two-needles per fascicle on a Table Mountain pine.
loblolly pine fascicles
Three-needles per fascicle on a loblolly pine.

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