12 Common Types Of Trees (And How To Identify Them)
Trees are a form of plant life that are pedestrian to most people, a common everyday sight, and a sign of life. Trees generally live longer than other plants and have no finite lifespan. Some species of trees can live for thousands of years; these ancient plants have been growing on earth for nearly 370 million years. Planet Earth is home to more than 60,000 species of trees, and they’re vital to the life we know and enjoy.
One of the first things kids learn about in school is how trees provide oxygen for humans to breathe. Our survival depends on plant life around the world continuing to thrive, including underwater vegetation, grasslands, and the approximate 3 trillion trees which currently grow on the planet. Outdoor enthusiasts need to understand the importance of trees, so learning about how to identify different forms of flora is a vital survival skill the same as knowing how to start a campfire.
In this article, we’re going to clarify the cloudy definition of what a tree actually is, and introduce you to the different categories which each tree can fall under. We’ll also explain X common types of trees that you’re most likely to come across, and how you can identify them correctly. Different types of leaves and bark are all characteristics singular to certain trees, so if you can spot them then identifying your local plant life gets a lot easier. Now, let’s begin with differentiating the two primary types of trees that grow globally.
What is a tree?
In botany (the study of plants) trees are defined as a perennial plant with an elongated trunk or stem which supports leaves and branches. (Perennial plants live for multiple years, as opposed to annual plants which have a life cycle of only one season.) However, this is a slightly limited definition, as the term “tree” can be extended to include any woody plant with branches and a trunk that grows significantly taller than the plants around it.
Tree branches are supported by a large and strong trunk, which extends underground. Beneath, the trunk extends into roots which spread widely to collect nutrients and moisture and provide support to the structure above ground. The branches which extend from the top of the trunk divide into smaller shoots, which spread to produce leaves. Leaves collect sunlight to convert into energy via photosynthesis, feeding the growth and development of the tree.
The trunk of a tree is its strongest part, made from a woody tissue that supports the weight of the canopy. Tree trunks also contain vascular tissue, which carries nutrients from one part of the plant to another. Most types of trees also have a layer of bark around the trunk, which acts as an additional protective shield. These are the general characteristics that fit every type of tree, but of course, this family of plants is hugely varied.
There are two primary categorizations that all trees fit into, and the difference between these two is the first thing you need to identify. Most people already recognize the distinction between these different types of trees, but we’ll still go into detail about how you can identify them. Read on to discover which trees lose their leaves, and what species are green all year round.
Deciduous vs coniferous trees
Every single one of the thousands of tree species on this planet fits into one of these two categories; either coniferous (evergreen) or deciduous. Deciduous trees lose their leaves at a certain time of year, usually in fall or autumn. The word deciduous literally means “to fall off at maturity”, so the leaves of these trees have an annual life cycle. In the spring new leaves grow, and they mature to a green color usually. Then, they change color leading to the wonderful fall color palette we all recognize, before falling to form a crunchy carpet in the streets.
This is the case with the most common trees in North America, Europe, and other countries with a mild climate. In hotter tropical countries, deciduous trees lose their greenery during the dry season. Once the leaves have fallen, these trees are bare wood skeletons until new leaf shoots begin to grow in the spring. Most deciduous trees are broadleaf, with wide, flat, green leaves.
Coniferous trees, otherwise known as evergreen trees, keep their leaves all year round. No matter the season, evergreen trees are unchanging in appearance. This type of tree often has needle-shaped leaves, which withstand the cold temperatures better than more delicate broadleaf trees. Evergreen landscapes are especially stunning in the winter when all other plant life looks dead.
Identifying basic leaf types
There are three different types of leaves that an evergreen or deciduous tree species can have. Broadleaves are a wide term which encompasses leaves of all shapes and sizes, so long as they are flat. Almost all deciduous plants have broadleaves, they can be oval, round, heart-shaped, anything! The maple leaf is an iconic shape we all know; broadleaves include a huge range of different plant life.
Most people will recognize needle leaves from their Christmas tree, and many evergreen trees feature this shape. Needle leaves are long and thin and can grow either in clusters or spread out sparsely. Evergreen trees do lose their needles over time, however, it doesn’t happen all at once as with deciduous flora. Instead, the leaves are lost and replaced gradually, in the same way, humans lose hair. The third category of leaves which some coniferous trees exhibit is scale-like leaves. We see these on common trees such as juniper and cedar, where the needles look more like the scales of a reptile.
12 common trees and how to identify them
1. Maple Trees
Maple trees are a common family found across Europe, America, and Asia. They belong to the genus Acer and are commonly associated with Canada as the country’s flag features a maple leaf. There are more than one hundred species of maple trees, the most common in Europe being the sycamore maple. Red maple, sugar maple, and silver maple are also common tree species you’ve probably seen around your hometown. Japanese maple trees are a common choice for bonsai, where a small tree is purposefully kept as an almost miniature replica.
Maple trees are famous for the sweet syrup you can make from their sap, which is a large reason these trees are sometimes farmed. Maple is also a hardwood tree, so its timber is used for baseball bats and in the construction industry. Another popular use for maple is in the creation of musical instruments. The easiest way to identify a maple tree is by its distinct leaf shape, which is the same across all species. Maple trees can be woody shrubs reaching around 10 meters, or huge towering trees more than 40 meters tall.
2. Oak Trees
Oak trees are one of the most well-known tree families across the world; their wood is very hard and durable and resistant to most diseases. Oak trees come from the genus Quercus and have over 90 different species in the United States alone. They have been one of the most prized trees as a building material for centuries, used in all kinds of industries. There are more than 300 known oak species globally, so it helps to break them down into further categories.
White oaks feature a round leaf, with sweet acorns that take a year to mature. Black (or red) oaks have bristles on their leaves and produce bitter-tasting acorns. The acorns from a red oak take two years to mature, so they’re called biennial oaks. By identifying the maturity of the acorns on an oak tree, you can tell which type of oak it is. Most oak species are deciduous, however, there are a handful of evergreen oak trees. The easiest way to identify an oak tree is by its acorns; all oaks carry this fruit. The leaves of oak trees are lobed, with either rounded or pointed tips.
3. Sycamore Trees
Try not to get the sycamore maple confused with true sycamore trees, as they’re only related by name. The sycamore is a large hardwood tree in the genus Platanus and is deciduous by nature. The wood from these trees is incredibly hard and dense, and therefore not a common building material. Sycamores can grow up to 40 meters and are one of the easiest types of trees to identify.
You can spot a sycamore tree by examining its bark. Don’t be misled by the leaves, which look similar to a maple leaf, and instead look at the color of the trunk. True sycamore trees have flaky bark, giving the trunks a red and brown multicolored appearance, often featuring patches of white and grey. Sycamore is a broadleaf tree, the leaves have three to five lobes with toothed edges.
4. Pine Trees
Pine trees are another common tree found all around the world. This evergreen family of the genus Pinus is probably the most easily recognizable coniferous tree in the world, a common ornamental tree with softwood. Pine tree leaves are clusters of green needles, and this tree species also produces hard cones called pine cones. White pine and red pine are two common species of this tree found everywhere in North America and Europe.
Pine trees are amongst the easiest to identify, they grow very straight and tall with needles mostly concentrated towards the top. Some species of pine grow up to 81 meters tall and do it at incredible speeds to boot. Because pine trees grow so fast, they’re incredibly useful as a material used in construction and furniture. The softwood is easy to work with and features an attractive grain.
5. Fir Trees
Fir trees are most popular for their use as Christmas trees, as species such as the balsam fir, Fraser fir, and noble fir are all popular festive choices. This evergreen tree family is of the genus Abies and contains approximately 50 different species of trees. Fir trees are closely related to the genus Cedrus, or cedar trees. Fir trees have a much denser needle distribution than bine trees, giving them a fuller and greener appearance.
Fir needles are soft and flat and tend to have two white stripes at the bottom of each leaf. Fir tree cones can be green, purple, or blue as they grow, before turning golden brown in maturity. You can easily spot a fir tree using its cones as they grow upwards, whereas other coniferous trees have downward-pointing cones.
6. Elm Trees
Elms are a common tree found mostly in forests and can be classed as either deciduous or semi-deciduous. There are about 35 different species within the Ulmus genus, including the American elm and European elm. The elm is another ornamental tree, not generally appreciated for its wood or fruit. Elms are hardwood trees and therefore difficult to work with as a building material.
You can identify an elm tree by its leaves, which are technically classed as broadleaf. There is quite a range of different leaves growing on elm tree species, but they all have the same pointed oval shape. Elm leaves range between 7 and 16 cm long. Unfortunately, a pandemic of Dutch Elm disease wiped many of the elms from our streets and forests, which is why this tree isn’t as much of a common sight as it once was. However, conservation efforts are well in effect and the American Elm species is in revival.
7. Willow Trees
Willows have some of the most distinctive shapes out of any tree in the world; their long drooping branches have a dramatic and striking appearance. There are approximately 400 species of the willow tree, all deciduous trees that can be either low-growing shrubs or trees of medium height. Willow tree leaves are always elongated ovals, but their color can vary between species. Black willow trees feature dark, furrowed bark.
Willow leaves can be green, yellow, or blue in hue, making these breathtaking trees even more beautiful. The wood from willows can be used to make wicker baskets and similar items, due to the long, soft, and flexible branches. Willow trees are arguably the easiest to identify, as no other type of tree has the low sweeping branches. When temperatures drop in the fall, willow trees are among the last to lose their leaves.
8. Magnolia Trees
When people choose a tree to plant in their garden, Magnolias are an obvious choice. The Magnolia family contains both deciduous and evergreen types of trees, which can grow in a huge range of environments. These trees produce large fragrant flowers and cones of fruits that look like berries, and all types of the Magnolia tree are broadleaf.
Magnolias are medium-sized trees, they grow fast and have softwood. There’s quite a large variation in leaf size and shape in magnolias, so the easiest way to identify this tree is through the fruit. The cone-shaped seed pods are unique in comparison to most other tree species, so by spotting these you’ll know if your tree is a part of the magnolia family.
9. Birch Trees
Birch trees, of the genus Betula, are a family containing about 60 species of hardwood trees. Often, the wood from birch trees is used as firewood or for making furniture. The bark of birch trees is often white or silver, making it their most identifiable feature. The branches of birch are long, and droop slightly, holding small, thin, triangular leaves. Oil extracted from birch trees can be used in both cooking and medicine. Birch trees are some of the most common trees with small leaves.
10. Tulip Trees
The tulip tree is not actually related to the flower of the same name but is called so because of the attractive yellow-green flowers which cover the tree. The wood of the tulip tree is attractive, but not strong, so is used for aesthetic purposes rather than in construction. When a tulip tree is young, the bark is brown or ashy gray. As the tree matures, the color will darken, however rich and moist soil is necessary for this.
The leaves of a tulip tree are almost rectangular, with 4 to 6 lobes and up to 15 cm in length. Tulip trees bloom before the leaves grow, meaning once spring rolls around the large leaves will hide the blooming flowers. However, this distinctive setup makes tulip trees easy to identify, using the leaves and orange-yellow flowers.
11. Butternut Trees
If you’ve ever seen a tree with green balls and wondered what on earth they are, it might have been the Juglans cinerea. The butternut tree is a deciduous slow-growing tree native to Canada and the United States. It grows in moist soil and has edible nuts, which look like green balls on the tree. You can identify a butternut tree by its light grey bark, which becomes rougher in texture with age. This large leaf tree has no stems, so the pointed leaves grow directly from the branch.
12. Cedar Trees
Cedars are large trees that can reach a towering 50 meters, from the Pinaceae tree family. They are popular as ornamental trees and also as bonsai, as most people view them as graceful and elegant plants. This kind of tree is also popular for its fragrance, as you’ll recognize cedarwood as a common scent in men’s toiletries. In the USA, many trees we call cedars such as the eastern redcedar (found in the Rockies of Colorado) are actually juniper trees from the family Juniperus, so be sure not to confuse the two. Tree identification for cedars is straightforward, as they are one of the few kinds of trees with scale leaves. The foliage is either dark green or bluish in color and grows in spiral clusters.
In this article, we’ve identified 12 of the most common types of trees from across the United States and the world, and you should now be able to accurately identify several of these tree species. Some of the more common tree families we didn’t include are ash trees, hawthorn, larch, and walnut, but we’ve covered those you’re most likely to come across. From butternut trees with green balls to huge weeping willows, you should now be better at identifying the tree life around you.
Bonus tip: Check out this video for more information on identifying trees!