Non-visual Keys to Tree Identification
This section will be expanded as time permits. Here we will concentrate on the tree and major
shrub species found in central Maine. Elsewhere we will reach farther afield. For a current,
comprehensive key to the trees, try this Tree key
Species groups of Penquis Virtual Nature Center.
This key is designed to be used in conjunction with the Tree and
shrub list and with the dicussion of The natural history of trees
The key here is arranged in typical dichotomous fashion. That is, you are given a choice of
two options that will take you in different directions. We will try to make it easy to get
back to where you made the choice in case you find you made a mistake.
Most terms used should be self-explanatory. An exception may be the distinction between simple
and compound leaves. Compound leaves are made up of leaflets which seem like the leaves of
other trees. These leaflets grow from a central stem -- which itself may be branched. The
distinction is sometimes hard to make by feel. However, in summer and fall, you will be
able to feel the buds that have developed for the next year's growth. They are found at the
base of the leaf stem, usually just beyond it on the twig. There are no buds at the base of
the leaflets in compound leaves. Trace the stem back to where the central stem joins the twig,
and you will find there the bud. Practice a bit. Once you learn to feel simple versus compound
and opposite versus alternate in leaf arrangement you will be able to make many identifications,
even in some complicated cases.
- Leaves linear, needle-like, or scale-like. Usually evergreen.Conifers
- Leaves otherwise or absentHardwood, broadleaf or deciduous species
- Needles in groups. Pines
- Needles otherwise.Spruce, fir, hemlock, cedar, larch
Spruce, fir, hemlock, cedar, larch
- Needles linear or needle-like Spruce, fir, hemlock, larch.
- Needles pressed to twigs and resembling scales of a fish Cedar
Spruce, fir, hemlock, larch
- Needles growing singly along branch in new growth, not flat, growing from woody pegs in old
growth. Larches or tamarack
- Leaves or needles not as aboveSpruce, fir, hemlock
Spruce, fir, hemlock
- Needles single, relatively stiff, round or 4-sided in cross section.Spruces
- Needles single, linear, flat, not stiff. Fir and hemlock
Fir and hemlock
- Leaves flat, an inch or more long, not tapered from base to tip. Fir
- Leaves flat, usually less than an inch long, tapered from base to tip. Hemlock
Five per group (or bundle or fascicle in white pine). Two per group in red and jack pines.
3 species here
Fir (Abies) - Needles single, linear and flat, not stiff, long and narrow. Except for planted species, all firs in the northeast are balsam firs.
They smell like Christmas trees because that is the most commonly used tree for that purpose.
Hemlock (Tsuga) - Needles single, linear and flat, not stiff, shorter and wider than in fir.
Cedar (Thuja, Juniperus) - Leaves pressed flat to twigs. Northern white-cedar, also called arborvitae, is very commonly planted.
Larch or tamarack
Larches (Larix)- Needles growing singly along branch in new growth and in groups from woody pegs in older growth. Loses leaves in winter.
Leaves broad, either simple or compound, usually shed in winter in Maine. Leaves, buds, and
twigs characteristically arranged in opposite or alternate pattern. In summer, check for
leaf arrangement. In winter, check for bud arrangement.
Opposite arrangement is found in maples, ashes, dogwoods, the honeysuckle family, which here
means the viburnums primarily, and the buckeyes or horsechestnuts. Of these, maples, dogwoods,
and viburnums have simple leaves (except in Boxelder, a maple). Ashes have compound leaves
with leaflets arranged along a central stem in a manner reminiscent of the feather of a bird.
The horsechestnuts have leaflets growing outward in a fan from the central stem like fingers
from a hand.
- Leaves or buds growing opposite each other along twig. Maple, ash,
dogwood, honeysuckles, horsechestnuts and allies
- Leaves or buds not opposite each other or clustered toward end of twig.Other hardwoods
- Leaves simple (except in Box elder and elderberry), twigs slender.
Maple, dogwood, honeysuckle
- Leaves compound, twigs heavy. Ash, horsechestnut
Maple, dogwood, honeysuckle
- Tree sized, leaves with toothed or irregular margins Maples
- Shrub or small tree, leaves with smooth or finely toothed margins.
Honeysuckle and dogwood
Maple (Acer)- Red (Acer rubrum), sugar (Acer saccharum), silver (Acer saccharinum), striped
(Acer spicatum) are the species of the northeast. Small to very
large trees. Leaves simple, opposite, bark smooth in young,
becoming broken into plates as tree ages. Fine twigs and buds.Norway is
planted. It has bark in diamondy ridges. Fruits are double-winged and reminiscent of insects.
They vary in size and separation angle between the wings. Norway maple fruits are found in summer
and are widely spread. Red maple fruits are smaller, earlier, and with less spread. Sugar maple
is the primary source of maple syrup and other maple products, though red maple also produces a
usable sap that isn't as concentrated and consequently requires more boiling.
Honeysuckle and dogwood families
These are small trees or shrubs, generally growing in the understory. They are difficult to
distinguish. Most of the dogwoods have smooth-margined leaves which does you little good
in the winter. The honeysuckle family is widely varied ranging from small-tree sized elderberries
which are greatly appreciated by wildlife -- caution some are poisonous to humans -- which have
compound, papery leaves, to small shrubby hobblebush which has rounded, simple leaves.
Ash and horsechestnut
Ashes (Fraxinus) have opposite compound leaves and heavy twigs and buds. We have white, green,
and brown or black ash. Green ash is rare enough not to worry about. Bark is in vertical
diamond pattern with that of black ash being quite flaky. If your feet aren't wet, it isn't a
black ash. This species is often used to make baskets. Fruit is a shaped like winged oar about
1 or 2 inches long.
Horsechestnuts are a Eurasian tree that is often planted in farm yards. They have very heavy
twigs and buds as large as the end of your finger. Their leaves are palmately compound, that is,
the leaflets grow out from a central stem like the fingers from the palm of a person's hand. The
bark is flaky. Fruits are heavy nuts.
Here it gets complicated. There are a lot of alternately arranged trees and shrubs. Too many,
in fact, to be separated simply by non-visual cues. Nevertheless, we will present characteristics
of some of the more important ones.
- Leaves retained in winter (if known). Rhododendrons, laurels
- Leaves shed in fall (if known)
Rhododendrons and laurels. This group is among the few broad-leaved evergreens in our area. All have narrow alternate leaves
with untoothed margins. Rhododendron (Rhododendron) leaves are leathery and up to hand-length. Laurel leaves
are smaller and less leathery (Kalmia). They are shrubs or occasionally small trees. Most are
found primarily in moist areas, but mountain laurel is found in drier habitats.
- Leaves and buds clustered toward the end of the twig. Oaks
- Not as above
Oak (Quercus) - Alternate, deeply cut leaves and buds clustered toward ends of branches. Bark
rough with mainly horizontal ridges and furrows. In our area, only red oak (Quercus rubra) is
common. The fruit is the familiar acorn.
Aspen (Populus) - Quaking and bigtooth. Simple leaves, flat stems, alternate arrangement.
Bark smooth but becoming rough near base in older trees. The leaf stems of these trees are flat
and very mobile in the wind, leading to the quaking effect. With some practice you may be able
to recognize that sound and thereby learn what tree you are standing under.
Willow (Salix) - Several species in our area. Scaly bark, soft wood, tough, slender twigs. Bark
on large trees can be deeply ridged and furrowed. Leaves
are simple (not compound) and are generally longer than they are wide with toothed margins. Willows are generally
found on moist ground in bogs or along streams. Black willow, shining
willow, crack willow (an escape from cultivation) white willow, Bebb willow, pussy willow are
the only ones in our area that reach tree size, and the Bebb and pussy willow never get very
big. The fuzzy catkins (flowering bodies) of pussy willow are well known. The willows can
be difficult to tell apart, even for experts.
Birch (Betula) - Leaves alternate, simple. Bark smooth, usually shredding horizontally.
Branches of yellow birch has peppermint smell when scratched. Bark at the base of older trees
becomes ridged and platy. White birch is almost identical given non-visual cues, but the
smell of the scratched twig is definitive. Gray birch has less shreddy bark and arrow-head
shaped leaves. It is usually a small, poorly formed tree. Many planted European birches have similar characteristcs
of leaf and bark and weaping habit. Birch sap can be used to make a syrup like maple, but is
The rose family comprises a large group of small trees and shrubs. Blackberries, raspberries,
and roses are shrubby and generally have spiny stems. Cherry (Prunus) - Finely toothed, alternate leaves. Bark breaks into squarish plates on older
trees. Most of the cherries have little warty growths on the leaf stems, but they can be
hard to detect without a lot of practice. Apples (Malus) and hawthornes
(Crataegus) have short spur twigs or even spines in the latter group. Bark is flaky or scaly.
are generally among the first plants to flower in spring, generally during mud season or just after.
Leaves are small, roundish, and finely toothed. All these
groups are favored food of wildlife. Even humans have been known to eat apples and cherries upon
Beech (Fagus grandifolia) - Alternate leaves with prominent ribs below. Smooth bark. Many beeches now
showing rough, bumpy bark because of insect pests. Long, pointy buds. Beech is sometimes called
the 'idiot's sign up sheet' because of the habit some people have of carving their names into
the bark. Test yourself: If John Q. Dim-wit carves his name into a beech at shoulder height, will
the signature rise as the tree grows? Answer: No. Trees grow upward from a terminal leader and outward
from a live layer beneath the bark. Johnny Dim-wit's name will be at shoulder height as long as the
tree lives, though some of the damage will heal into scars eventually.
Basswood, Linden (Tilia). Found widely in northern hemisphere. Leaves are alternate, toothed, hand-sized and unequally heart-shaped
at the base. The fruit is distinctive with a leaf-like sail attached to a stemmed nut. Bark is
smooth on young trees becoming thicker and furrowed into scaly ridges on older trunks in most species. Several
North American species and some Old world species are planted as ornamentals.