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Tree Identification Post - March 15, 2021

March 15, 2021

You may have guessed by now, but here at SunHeist, we have an affinity for trees. Each of our styles is named after a unique species, and with every pair of sunglasses we sell, a donation is made to One Tree Planted to help reforest the planet! While there are tons of resources for ornamental trees, this guide is intended to encourage a little extra adventure on your next hike, bike ride or road trip. With the first day of spring arriving on Saturday, March 20, millions of trees around the country all will start growing their leaves back as the weather warms up (unless of course, they are evergreens!). 

There are lots of things to look for when identifying a tree you are unfamiliar with. So without further adieu, here are some tips to help you identify tree


Understand the parts of a tree

Discoverandshare.org explains there are 4 specific aspects of a tree that can really help with identification: flowers, foliage, fruit, and bark. Let’s break each of these down!

  • Flowers: Pay attention to the details. Are the flowers large or small? What shape are they? What color are they? When did they appear on the tree? Do they smell? 
    Flowering Tree
  • Foliage: This generally refers to a tree's leaves (or needles), and is probably the most challenging and difficult because there is tremendous variation. We recommend starting big and then narrowing down so as to not be overwhelmed. Does the tree have leaves or needles? In addition to the shape of the leaf, what are its colors like in different seasons? Do the leaves have texture to it? We’ll dive a bit deeper into leaves below… 
    Foliage
  • Fruit: Does the tree have any noticeable pods, nuts, or fruits? These usually develop in the summer, and continue to grow/ ripen in the fall. While some fruiting trees are commonly known as we consume their fruit (apple, pear, cherry, etc.) other examples are a bit less common-- like the Buckeye, Dogwood, or Elderberry. Be careful: some trees produce fruits which can be toxic to humans and other animals. If you don’t clearly recognize a fruit, it is best not to eat it! 
    Tree with berries
  • Bark: especially useful in the winter time, tree bark is much like a fingerprint. Some trees the American Beech are almost totally smooth, while others like the Paper Birch look like their bark is constantly peeling off. Tip: take pictures of bark from a few feet away so you can see the ridges, scales, plates, or peeling bark. 

Environmental Analysis

If you enjoy spending time outdoors, chances are you have at least some idea what types of trees are growing near your home. If you are in a new part of the country or world however, keep the following things in mind as they could help you identify the different species groups in a new area. What is the climate like? Is there a lot of annual rainfall? There is also something known as a timberline which can help you identify tree species. National Geographic describes three types of timberlines:

  1. Alpine timberlines exist where the elevation becomes too high, and therefore often too cold, for tree growth.
  2. Desert timberlines exist where the soil is too dry for tree growth, is often in lower elevations where other plants exist
  3. Desert-Alpine timberlines are very rare as they not only have high elevation, but also extremely dry climates. An example of this would be volcanic areas of Hawaii. 

Deciduous vs. coniferous trees

For most people, this is the first step in identifying a tree. If a tree grows broad leaves in the spring and summer, and then loses them in the fall, it is deciduous. If it has green needles or scales year round, it is often coniferous--and they are often called “evergreens” for this reason. Just for fun, when looking at our current sunglass styles, the breakdown is as follows:

Deciduous: Alder, Aspen, Birch, Cottonwood, Willow

 

Coniferous: Cypress, Hemlock, Juniper

Simple vs. compound leaves

This is another broad way to start classifying trees based on their leaves. 

Simple leaves have a single stem connecting the leaf back to the bud. Examples include Sugar Maple and White Oak trees.

Maple Leaves

Compound leaves have 2 or more leaflets coming from a single bud. Examples include the Hickory, Walnut, and Ash trees.

 

What is the general shape of the tree?

From afar, the shape of a tree can also help you with identification. Is it tall and skinny, or short and broad? Is the trunk small or large? Can you see through the leaves/ needles, or is it very dense? This one is especially useful when you are in a forested area with many examples of the same tree species as you can see how they look at different stages of development (young to old).

Get a little help!

From great field guides like What Tree is That? from the Arbor Day Society, to smartphone apps like Plantsnap and iNaturalist, the great thing about the time we live in is that others have done a lot of the legwork for us! Whether you prefer something on paper, or to use the camera on your phone, a guide or app can really accelerate your ability to identify trees out in nature.

In conclusion, while we know that not everyone will geek out on trees as much as we do, we hope that everyone sees the value in learning a bit more about them. If you have kids, tree identification games like bingo, matching leaves, or tree “roulette” with a guidebook can be a great interactive way to get them outside to explore nature. Without trees, the planet of course would cease to exist, so do your best to appreciate them and protect them whenever you can--so future generations will be able to marvel at how beautiful, strong, and resilient they really are!