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Tree Identification

Mature White Ash Tree in Branford
Large, mature white ash in Branford center. 
This tree is a key feature on the town green.

Close up picture of ash leaves and twigs
Leaves and twigs of that ash tree. 
Twigs, leaves and buds all help with ID.

Being outside while getting to know trees is one of the best ways to experience nature. Observing the characteristics of trees in a hands-on manner is a great way to learn how to identify different kinds of trees. It also allows you to connect with the outdoors in a highly rewarding and satisfying way.

How to Identify Trees

Field Guides:

  • Are the best resource for learning how to identify trees. 

  • Use drawings or photos to illustrate their descriptions of trees and their characteristics.  Which works better is your choice.

  • Most contain a dichotomous key. You are given a series of choices in sequential order. By following the choices, you are led to the correct answer. These choices relate to the distinctive characteristics of a tree species. Learning to distinguish the key features of buds, twigs, and bark is a part of putting these tree identification tools to work.

  • Tend to contain descriptions of trees that are found within a certain geographic area, such as 'the eastern United States' or 'southern New England'. Choose a guide that covers the trees you are interested in.

  • Tend to focus primarily on native and naturalized species - those trees that are found growing on their own in the woods. 

In urban and landscaped settings, you will often encounter non-native trees, including on occasion some unusual species. For the most part, these trees are not included in the standard field guides. Examples of exotic species now finding a home in Connecticut include Korean evodia and Persian parrotia - handsome, small trees being planted along streets and in parks. 

Hybrid tree varieties are also often planted in the landscape. Examples include the Freeman maple (the result of a cross of red maple and silver maple) and the Homestead elm (a complex hybrid of 3 elm species). The identifying characteristics of these hybrids may not all totally match the descriptions of the parent species given in the field guides.

For both hybrid and exotic species, the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael Dirr (Stipes Publishing) is the accepted standard. There are, of course, other guides. Again, choose one that fits your needs. If you wish to take it into the field, portability is an important factor.  

Classes:

Look for classes such as those held periodically at:

In Connecticut, there are various arboreta. These also often hold classes and are all useful locations for sharpening tree identification skills.

On-line Resources

Websites:

  • What Tree Is That?A guide to northeastern tree species developed by the Arbor Day Foundation.

  • Go BotanyA plant and tree guide created by the New England Wildlife Society.

Visual Guides:

  • LeafsnapAn electronic photo field guide for tree and plant species developed by Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution.

  • My WoodsAn online photo guide that identifies native flora and fauna. The application was created by The North East State Foresters Association.

Local Tree Guides:

  • Guide to New Haven Street TreesAn identification plant guidebook to commonly found street trees in New Haven. The guide can be applied to many towns and cities in Connecticut and can be readily printed or purchased to take into the field.

Plant Fact Sheets:

  • UConn's Plant DatabaseHelpful in determining native plants found in Connecticut and the conditions they require.  

 Trees and Urban Forests: How to Learn More  | Forestry Main Page

For more information, contact the Division of Forestry at 860-424-3630 or deep.forestry@ct.gov

Content last updated October 2019