NATURE NOTES - Number 20                         May 14, 2021


Thanks for visiting NATURE NOTES again.  It’s spring time and by now most trees have their new leaves.  It’s time to start looking at them, so let’s talk about ……

Our current topic:  Tree Identification

An earlier NATUE NOTE discussed some common evergreen trees in our area.  This note will focus on deciduous trees, or those that lose their leaves in the fall.  Tree identification, or dendrology, can be challenging.  A field guide is a must to help you do this.  I recommend the one below, but others will work.  First, learn some terminology.  The guide will explain terms you need to know, such as simple vs compound leaves; Palmately vs Pinnately leaves; serrated edges vs lobed edges; etc.   

Guides are normally divided into trees of the same or similar family, so you can learn them this way.  For examples, start with oaks.  Then split it into white oaks and red oaks (white oaks have rounded lobes, red oaks have pointed lobes).  Then start looking for differences in these groupings.   I am not going to try and use this NATURE NOTE as a guide for identification, but will give some ideas for you to use WITH a field guide that I have leaned over the years:

  • There are some things I learned to use to connect scouts with certain species. For example: the Canadian flag – it has a maple leaf on it. Scouts seem to know this.  Or the tree with the bark that looks like your camouflage pants – the Sycamore.
  • Some groups, ashes and hickories are good examples, may best be left as just an ash tree or a hickory tree. It might be too much to get into a lot of detail on exact species with younger scouts.
  • Look underneath the tree for clues. If there are large green nuts underneath, look up walnut in your guide. If there are a lot of acorns, it’s a safe bet there is an oak nearby. 
  • Use smell and feel as well as sight to figure out a tree. Walnut and hickory have a very distinct smell. Black oak has a coarse, leathery feel that other oaks don’t have. 
  • Scouts at camp have had a problem between Dogwood and Tupelo (or Black gum). The leaves look similar to a 12 year old, but look at the veins in the leaves. That’ll tell.   Also note the bark on the Dogwood.
  • If they are collecting leaves for Forestry Merit Badge (it’s ok to pick leaves from a tree). Make sure you collect the entire leaf, not a leaflet. See the illustration in the field guide.  A Ziploc bag is good for collecting in the field.  It beats stuffing the leaves in a pocket until you get them home. 
  • Look at where you are. Are you on a dry, sandy ridge? Are you along a shady, moist stream bed? Are you along an edge of the forest?  This will often be a clue as to the identification.  READ the text in the field guide, don’t just look at the drawing or photo.  Also, if it is a guide that covers all of North America, don’t let the scout claim it’s a tree that grows only in Oregon. USE the RANGE MAP. 
  • You are not going to find all the species that might occur in an area. You will probably find that most of the trees are one of perhaps 15-20 species. Move up the slope or down to the creek and you find more species. 
  • Don’t worry if you can’t identify every tree. There are some that just don’t want to fit a drawing or description in a guide. You’ll get better with practice.
  • Also, keep in mind that some guides don’t include shrubs. The definition of tree vs a shrub is not real firm in some cases. So if it might be a shrub instead of a small tree, move on to a big guy you KNOW is a tree (over 20’ tall). 
  • Finally, use a lot of caution if you are trying to identify trees in your yard or neighborhood park. Many of those are planted or escaped ornamentals that will not show up in a field guide of native trees. Get out in the boonies to find your trees.

Nature Opportunities:

The recommended field guide is published by the Virginia Department of Forestry and sells for $3 at the VDF regional office in Salem.  Their number is 540-387-5461.    It’s called Common Native Trees of Virginia and it includes only Virginia trees.  It’ll fit the needs of scouts.  So get out there and start looking at trees and identifying what you can.  Use the guide.  Teach the scouts how to use it.  Most will like learning about something they have never been exposed to before. Go for Forestry or Nature Merit Badge.  Forestry requires identification and collection of 20 leaves. Not difficult.  Scouts at camp usually found their 20 within the week. 

Good luck!  I always like to hear how you are using these NOTES, so email me at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .                            Bob Garst