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Learning How to Identify Trees

I was out hiking last weekend in the Middlesex Fells just outside of Boston. I am working on a project that I've set for myself, which is to inventory and be able to identify all of the tree species that grow in this natural area. My ultimate goal is to learn how to identify these trees from their bark alone, without the need to look at their leaves.

Cool Bark - Unknown Tree Species, Middlesex Fells, Medford MA

But, I learned yesterday that tree identification for novices is not as easy as I had hoped. I managed to identify a few tree species including sugar maples, pitch pines, american beach, white oak and white birch, but then things got real confusing. There were a lot of species I simply couldn't identify in the tree book I had brought along with me.

I quickly broke down and tried to identify trees based on their leaves but there are so many that look alike that it's hard to differentiate between them. I guess it's just a matter of learning to recognize the subtle differences between leaf shapes and structure.

I also found that there is a good deal of variation in the bark of a single species between young trees and older trees.

Fall Foliage in the Middlesex Fells, Medford, Massachusetts

I recognize that teaching myself how to identify trees is going to take a while. When faced with similar situations in the past my normal reaction is to go by some books that I can use as a resource to develop a skill. I visited Amazon.com today and bought a few tree guides that focus on trees in the eastern US including A Field Guide to Eastern Trees (Peterson Field Guides)and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region.

I also started googling like mad and found an excellent online resource called VTreeID, an online tree identification database hosted by Virginia Tech Forestry Department, that provides searchers with Tree Fact Sheets. Each of these provides an assortment of pictures of a tree's leaves, bark, buds, seeds, and shape without leaves. It's already cleared up a few mysteries for me.

Do any of you tree experts out there have any advice for a novice tree spotter?

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2 comments

  1. Hi,

    I was just today led to your blog and am most interested in your desire to identify all trees in the Middlesex Fells. I started to list plants as I hiked in the Fells in 2003. At that time I was very weak on trees but better at herbaceous plants having majored in biology some years ago. Then I was joined by others making a team of five, two of whom are good at trees. Together we have listed, after six years, about 790 vascular plants, i.e. those that stand up – ferns, conifers and all flowering plants. I haven't as yet totaled the tree separately but I would think we've documented about 70 species. But you may have seen a species that we missed. Furthermore, we have divided the 2,500 acres of Fells into 8 sectors – see our website – and recorded as many species as possible in each sector. This then gives us a measure of frequency. I'd be glad to hear of any discoveries you've made, and to share more details of our survey with you if you're interested.

    Best wishes,

    Bryan Hamlin

  2. Bryan – I'm fascinated by your teams efforts and will contact you off line. It'd be nice to tag along with some of you tree experts when they go on patrol to get some real-time mentoring and meet other people with a passion for the fells.

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