In this video from the WPSU’s series Outside, a staff member at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center at Penn State University explains how being able to identify trees can make a winter walk through the woods more enjoyable. First, you can classify a tree into one of two groups: a conifer that holds its leaves or needles year round, or a deciduous tree that drops leaves annually. Next, observe each tree's characteristics: the type of bark, the branching pattern of a twig, the shape of a bud, and the appearance of fruit or seeds.
Knowing something about identifying trees is an easy way to have more fun on a walk through the winter woods. Leaves, bark, fruit, twigs and forms of trees can give clues about the tree’s identity.
First, classify the tree as a conifer or deciduous tree. Does the tree have cones with needle-like leaves or berry-like cones with scaly leaves that hug the twig? If so, it’s a conifer. Most conifers are evergreen with needles or leaves that remain alive and keep growing season to season. Does the tree have thin, flat leaves that are shed each winter or during dry seasons? Then it’s a broadleaf. Most broadleaves are deciduous and bear fruit and flowers.
Shedding broadleaves or holding coniferous leaves are adaptations that allow trees to better survive during winter or dry seasons when they can lose precious water from their foliage. Deciduous trees drop leaves to conserve energy and prevent damage while conifers have thin, waxy needles and leaves to protect against the cold and moisture loss.
The texture, color and patterns of bark can help identify a tree. As a tree grows older, its smooth bark often splits and becomes rougher. If the bark is rough, it may be furrowed in patterns, split into large or small blocks, or shredded in long or short strips. The beech tree is one of few species with bark that remains smooth throughout its life.
The bark’s function is to protect the tree from physical injury and fire. Inside are vulnerable tissues that transport water and nutrients to all parts of the tree. The thickness, chemistry, or texture of bark can protect the tree’s interior tissues by acting as a barrier to birds, insects, or grazing animals and as a shield from snow, frost, or UV rays.
The shape, color, and size of fruit can also identify the species. Look on the ground or at the top of trees for different types of fruit, such as cones, berries, acorns, and capsules, as well as key and stone fruit. Key fruits are dry, winged, and often one-seeded, like those found on ash, elm, and maple trees, while stone fruits have sweet, fleshy outer parts that surround a pit, like cherries or peaches. Often edible and colorful, fruits protect seeds as they develop and then help disperse them.
In winter, branching patterns of twigs (alternate or opposite) will help pinpoint a species. Twigs may be stout or thin, hairy or smooth, with large or small buds in a range of colors. Scars may indicate where leaves have fallen off and buds will develop into fruit and flowers in the spring. When it’s cold, many animals eat the parts of twigs: buds, bark, and tender shoots.
A guide with illustrations can help classify a tree.
To learn about how a tree grows, check out Life of a Tree.
To learn how to identify a sugar maple, check out Maple Syrup.
To learn how plants, including trees, convert solar energy to chemical energy, check out Illuminating Photosynthesis.
Academic standards correlations on Teachers' Domain use the Achievement Standards Network (ASN) database of state and national standards, provided to NSDL projects courtesy of JES & Co.
We assign reference terms to each statement within a standards document and to each media resource, and correlations are based upon matches of these terms for a given grade band. If a particular standards document of interest to you is not displayed yet, it most likely has not yet been processed by ASN or by Teachers' Domain. We will be adding social studies and arts correlations over the coming year, and also will be increasing the specificity of alignment.