_The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now. – Chinese proverb
We know that there are many benefits to getting out into nature. It helps reduce blood pressure and boosts your immune system—in turn helping you de-stress. Many of us at least know the difference between coniferous and deciduous trees and can maybe identify a few of the most common trees in our surrounding neighborhoods.
Identifying trees can be a bit daunting—there are different varieties within species and genera and we won’t even get into hybrids. We’ll keep it pretty basic with some of the most common trees around your ‘hood. If you want to impress your friends and colleagues (or kiddos), read ahead for some trees you’re likely to see next time you go on a hiking adventure or get out for a stroll around the block.
American Elm can be found lining city streets and in backyards from Maine to Texas. The tree is easily identifiable by its towering and expansive canopy and vase-shaped trunk. Most species of elm trees have leaves that are oval-shaped, light to dark green in color, and have saw-toothed edges. The cedar elm, American elm, and slippery elm are found in the US.
An easily identifying feature of the American sycamore tree is the “camo” patchy look of its bark. The leaves of a sycamore tree resemble the maple tree, however, the space in between the lobes is generally more shallow. The leaves turn yellow and then brown in the fall. Sycamores are the largest of the deciduous hardwoods in the eastern part of the US.
Oaks can stand between 60 and 100 feet tall; their crowns reaching diameters of 150 feet. Acorns will help you identify this sprawling tree if it’s mature enough (15-20 years old). What’s an acorn you ask? In a nutshell, it’s an oak tree! Oak leaves typically have five or six rounded lobes and short stalks. They turn yellow in fall and the bark has deep grooves and darkens as it matures.
You know you’re in the south if Magnolia trees are in your neighborhood. Magnolia leaves are large, dark green, and glossy. Trees (or shrubs) can be small or massive in size, depending on the species. Another telltale sign it’s a Magnolia is the fragrance; the scent depends on the species—sniff for a lemony overtone.
Children and adults alike are entertained by the helicopters (samaras) that maple trees produce. Sugar maple, red maple, silver maple, boxelder, and bigleaf are all commonly found in the continental US and have leaves that burst into color during the fall months.
Red maple (acer rubrum) is a species of maple tree that is the most abundant and widespread in the eastern part of the US. The tree can grow up to 90 feet tall and four feet in diameter. Wanna know how to spot a maple leaf, eh? It’s the leaf from the Canadian flag!
Ash trees are medium to large and have opposite leaves. Some species have stems resembling a feather. Young ash trees have smoother bark, but as they mature diamond patterns may form. They have an opposite branching pattern and paddle-shaped samaras, or fruit.
Species of birch trees are identifiable by their papery white bark that peels in thick layers. Birch trees are typically smaller than most of the other trees on the list. Leaves of birch trees are alternate and single or double toothed.
Smooth, silver-grey bark as it matures is a characteristic of the beech tree. With a dense canopy, oval-shaped leaves that turn yellow during the fall months, and cigar-looking buds you are sure to spot a beech on your next jaunt outside.
Oh, Christmas tree! Blue spruce is a conifer that has blue-green needles. It’s the state tree of Colorado and can be found along the west coast. Bark of the spruce tree is flaky and thin. Cones from spruce are thinner than that of the pine tree and are more flexible.
Oh! It’s another Christmas tree! This conifer is different from spruce, and an easy way to tell is to take a look at the needles. If they are attached in clusters to the branches they are pine, if they are attached individually it’s spruce. Most species of pine trees have bark that is thick and scaly, while pine cones are, of course, rigid and woody.
These showy trees have leaves that are smooth, oval, and around three to six inches long. The blades are less than eight inches long with veins that curve to follow the leaf edge. Typically, the flowers are white but can include pink and sometimes yellow. The bark of a dogwood may peel off.
Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia)
Crape myrtles come in a variety of colors including shades of pink, red, purple, and white that flower during the summer months. They may have more than one main trunk, but if pruned properly will only have one or a few. Leaves on the crape myrtle are small (around two inches), dark green, turning red, yellow, or orange during the fall.
Cypress trees tend to grow near water but can grow in dry locations. They are deciduous conifers (say what?!) that turn a beautiful golden color during the fall and lose their needles. Needles on a cypress tree are softer than those of a pine or spruce tree.
Identifying a chestnut tree may be tricky because it’s in the Beech family and can be easily confused for a beech tree. A mature chestnut tree has dark grey bark that is thick and deeply furrowed lengthwise. Check the leaves; if you find canoe-shaped leaves with toothed edges that are matte, and not shiny, you may have yourself a Chestnut tree.
Ginkgo biloba (Gingko)
Ginkgo leaves are uniquely fan-shaped, around four inches long, and turn a beautiful yellow during the fall. Ginkgo trees are distinctive and grow in a pyramidal shape.
Hickory leaves are feather-like, can have 17 leaves on one stem, and all of the species in the genus turn yellow in the fall. Hickory bark is grey, ridged, and has scaly plates that curl at the edges.
Willow trees are deciduous trees and shrubs that grow well near water. The Weeping Willow is recognized by its sweeping branches and lance-shaped leaves. Willows hold on to their leaves long into fall, and bud in early spring.
Leaves of some species of pear trees are glossy green, but some have silvery hair and they are varied in shape. The Bradford pear tree has oval glossy leaves, and puts forth white clusters of flowers in early spring.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras is an aromatic tree with leaves that turn from bright/medium green to brilliant colors of yellow, orange, scarlet, and purple in the fall. They really show out! The bark on mature sassafras trees is a reddish color, with deep furrows.