RFD Maine — Tree identification a rewarding pastime

By Tom Seymour | Mar 13, 2014

They’re all around us. Everywhere we look, we see trees. Even in the heart of our major cities, trees are an integral part of the landscape. And yet, how many of us can accurately name more than a handful of the trees we see every day?

Even people who pursue nature studies and make it a point to know their trees often draw a blank when viewing certain trees. Some species have so many variants that even trained foresters encounter identification problems. The willow family comes immediately to mind here. But in general, our common trees are quite easily identified.

Learning about our trees is fun, too. Any time we acquire more knowledge about some common item, our appreciation for it increases by leaps and bounds.

Tree basics

So how do we learn to identify trees? Where do we begin? Well, lacking person-to-person training from a forester, we need to turn to books. A number of excellent volumes are out there and my two favorites are Peterson’s Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs and Forest Trees of Maine, published by the Maine Forest Service. These, when used in tandem, will answer the vast majority of questions about any tree found in Maine.

The Peterson guide utilizes line drawings of leaves, buds, twigs, flowers (yes, trees have flowers too) and fruits. The lack of photos is not at all a drawback because the line drawings are exceptional. And as I’ve always said regarding any field guide to plants, “one good line drawing is worth 1,000 lousy photos.”

The Maine Forest Service publication is specific to Maine, while Peterson’s covers the entire northeast and north-central part of the country. Forest Trees of Maine uses a combination of photographs and line drawings. The photographs, though, are excellent and when combined with the line drawings, leave little doubt as to what you are looking at when comparing parts of a tree to what the book depicts.

So with these two books in hand…or in backpack, let’s head out and begin identifying trees.


Softwoods is a general description for trees that have needle-like leaves. Pine “needles” are actually pine leaves, for example. Generally speaking, most needle-leaved trees are evergreens. But then we have the larches. Here in Maine, our local larch (as opposed to the imported European larch, a tree used in plantings) is the tamarack, known to many as “hackmatack.” Some old-timers refer to tamarack as “juniper,” but that’s misleading because juniper is the proper name of an entirely different tree.

Tamarack is our only native conifer (bears cones) to lose its leaves in fall. Before falling, however, leaves turn from a rather striking shade of lime green, to a beautiful yellow, making tamarack one of our more desirable “autumn color” trees.

Then we have the pines. By and far the most common pine is the eastern white pine, the state tree of Maine. Other pines include Norway, or red pine, jack pine and pitch pine. The two latter are not widespread and for that reason, many people have never seen them. Norway pine, though, occurs throughout the state, although its distribution is spotty.

If a person only learns the difference between eastern white pine and Norway pine, that will serve as a big step in tree identification.

Then we have the spruces. Maine has several, including red spruce, black spruce and white spruce. White spruce has pleasing symmetry and for that reason, people sometimes harvest it as a Christmas tree. Soon after being placed in a water-filled holder inside the house, the reason for white spruce’s alternate name of cat spruce becomes evident. But don’t blame kitty for that odor…it’s the tree. Most people only make the mistake of putting up a cat spruce only once.

Maine has Norway spruce, too, but it is an introduced tree from Europe and not a true Maine forest tree. However, Norway pine is a Maine native and gets its common name from where it was first found, Norway, Maine.


By now it’s probably evident that I’m not going into much detail about any particular tree. That would take too much time and is better learned from one of the guidebooks. My purpose here is simply to encourage people to learn more about trees. So on we go, with hardwoods.

The term “hardwood” refers to broad-leaved trees, trees that lose their leaves each fall. The term for that is “deciduous.” All of our common broad-leaved trees are deciduous, although some, such as the various poplars, have soft, not hard, wood. Autumn color, with the exception of tamarack, is displayed solely on hardwood trees.

As with the softwoods, some groups of trees have a number of different members. Consider maples. The two common maples that anyone is likely to encounter are sugar, or hard rock maple and red maple. The sugar maple, as its name implies, has a pretty high sugar content to its sap. Red maples, though, contain sugar too, but in a somewhat more dilute form. However, where the tree grows sometimes has much to do with this and some red maples have a higher sugar content to their sap than others. The two trees, at least in warm weather, are easily told apart by differences in their leaves.

What about ash trees? We have three kinds here in Maine; white ash, black ash and green ash. White ash, which is a valuable wood with all kinds of uses, including the manufacture of baseball bats, is the most common. Next in line comes black ash, with its crumbly bark. Black (or brown) ash prefers moist settings and is usually found near streams and in perennially wet areas.

Mountain ash, not an ash at all but cousin to the apple tree, is commonly planted on lawns and along town and city streets. Its bright-red berries offer a striking sight in late summer.

Mighty oaks

Mighty oaks spring from small acorns. We can name eight different kinds of oak living here in Maine. The most common is the northern red oak. A good place to find lots of old, stately red oak is Sears Island.

Fruit of the oak, acorns, vary in size and shape from one type of oak to another. All are edible if processed in order to remove the tannin. But the effort involved is considerable. White oak, however, contains far less tannin than red oaks and this makes it quite worthwhile to process for food. That entails leaching the acorns in water to remove the tannin and then crushing and or grinding into pieces for eating, smaller bits for a grit substitute and a finer grade for use as flour.

For starters, I’d suggest learning to identify red oak, since it is the most common.

Oaks are valuable as the source of firewood, timber, flooring and even railroad ties.

Winter identification

While it’s much easier to identify any tree in summer by studying the leaves, it’s possible in winter, too. Differences in bark, structure and even how the twig ends look, all are telling marks of distinction.

So if you ever had the desire to get outside and do something in nature, even in winter, you don’t need to travel far to become a passable hand at tree identification. It’s fun and it gets us outside. That’s more than I can say for some other pastimes.

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