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Tree Tips

Deborah B. Hill

With so many different kinds of trees out there, how do you ever tell them apart? Here are some tips to help you.

Two leaf characteristics of trees can help you narrow the choices for identification. First, leaves can be either OPPOSITE or ALTERNATE (Figures 1a, 1b, and 1c). If the leaves come in pairs (one directly across the twig from another), they are called OPPOSITE. In our area, only five groups of trees have opposite branching leaves. These groups are:

An easy way to remember these tree groups is by the letters D, A, M, P (DAMP) and HORSE for horse chestnut or BUCK for buckeye.

Figure 1a — Example of opposite leaf arrangement.

Figure 1b — Example of alternate leaf arrangement.

Figure 1c — Example of whorled leaf arrangement.

Trees that do not have opposite branching are called ALTERNATE, and the leaves do not come in pairs but occur unevenly up and down the twig or branch. A few types of trees have WHORLED leaves, where three or more twigs or leaves come out at the same point, but they are uncommon.

Second, leaves can be SIMPLE or COMPOUND. A SIMPLE leaf has only one part that attaches to the twig or branch, but it can have many different shapes (Figure 2a). The leaf stem, or PETIOLE, swells where it attaches to the twig, and the new bud is usually found there. COMPOUND leaves have many parts, called leaflets, which can also have different shapes (Figure 2b). The base of a leaflet on a COMPOUND leaf will neither swell nor have a bud present. Most trees with compound leaves have leaves that are pinnately compound (Figure 2b). The hickory and horse chestnut/buckeye families have leaves that are palmately compound (spread out like fingers on the palm of your hand). Like the OPPOSITE-leafed trees, the ones with COMPOUND leaves are the smaller group, and they include:

When you are trying to remember these trees with compound leaves, think WHALE! Most trees have SIMPLE leaves.

Figure 2a — The sweetgum is an example of a tree with simple leaves.

Figure 2b — The white ash leaf is an example of a compound leaf.

Most of us find it easiest to identify trees by their leaves. However, other characteristics such as bark, buds, flowers, and fruit can also help us to identify trees. Following are some general tips to help you identify specific trees.






Other Characteristics

For more detailed information on identifying trees, consult a tree guide or Extension publication FOR-1, Kentucky’s Forest Trees and How To Know Them.

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