Do you know the names of the trees on your property? An awful lot of us don’t. People tend to see trees, and plants in general, as a sort of monolithic, capital-N Nature. Alice Lounsberry says in A Guide to Trees (1900) that trees are “so close at hand that we almost find ourselves in danger of becoming oblivious to their presence”.
So, how can we identify the species of trees around us? And why should we bother?
Knowing what species you have on your property is enormously beneficial and in some instances even essential to maintaining their health and beauty (and in turn, your property value). Specifically, identifying your trees will help you in the following ways…
Identifying safety hazards: some species found in residential landscaping are toxic to people and pets either in whole or in part, such as the beautiful Texas mountain laurel which has seeds toxic to dogs; some species are also more susceptible to breakages which could threaten cars or pedestrians, such as Bradford pears which tend to fall apart at the ends of their short lives, or pecans which efficiently shed their own dead wood.
Pest/disease diagnosis: many pests and diseases are species-specific, such as Emerald ash borers and oak wilt; if something is ailing your tree, being able to ID the species could significantly narrow down the culprits.
Proper watering/feeding: some species may require frequent supplemental watering to survive Texas summers while others are more drought-tolerant
Proper pruning: while many species can be pruned year-round, some benefit from pruning only in specific seasons and/or are at risk if pruned in the wrong season; there are also different pruning methods that work well for some species but could harm others, but we’ll get into that more in the next A@H installment.
Enjoyment: in general, homeowners who know what types of trees grow on their property tend to take more pleasure and pride in those trees, and that means those trees will live and flourish longer than if the homeowner had no interest— after all, you wouldn’t own a dog without being curious about its breed, would you?
In the age of apps and internet, plant identification has become much easier for homeowners. Our two favorite plant ID tools are the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Identification page and the app PictureThis. But if you’re interested in knowing just a little more about how trees are identified, read on…
Arrangement: are the buds paired on the stem (opposite arrangement) or unpaired (alternate arrangement) in their position along the twig?
Foliage: are the leaves simple (a single blade on each stalk) or compound (multiple leaflets or blades attached to a central stalk); are the leaf margins (edges) smooth or serrated, crenate or dentate (rounded or tooth-like); or does the tree just have needles, making it a conifer?
Twigs: inspect the arrangement of the buds, as well as the outer layer of the buds (overlapping scales are imbricate, scales that don’t overlap are valvate, and buds without scales are naked); other twig features include color, stoutness and more.
Fruit: does the tree have berries, nuts, samaras (a seed/wing combo like the “helicopter” seeds of a maple tree) or cones?
Bark: is the bark ridged and furrowed, made up of flat pieces of bark with edges called plates, or smooth?
Habit: habit describes the architecture of the crown — does the tree grow in a vase-like shape like an American elm or in a pyramidal shape like your classic Douglas fir Christmas tree? Other habits are rounded, spreading, oval, conical, open, weeping, irregular, and columnar.
Site: do you most often see the tree growing in a specific type of condition, such as in very dry rocky soils, or only in very moist soils particularly along bodies of water? Can they be found thriving in the shade of a larger tree, or are they only ever spotted in full sun?
So even if it’s only in the broadest of terms (i.e. my tree has needles and needled trees are conifers and some of the most popular conifers in my area are junipers), being able to identify your trees comes with many benefits. Not least of these are an increased likelihood of extending the life and beauty of your urban forest but also a personal sense of satisfaction at knowing and understanding your property a little better. Not to mention the people around you will be impressed, too. Trust us.