Field Guide to Trees

Wherever you live, you're probably not too far from a tree.

Whether in a forest, a park, your backyard, or simply on a city sidewalk, trees provide homes for critters, shade for humans, and even protection for our Earth by absorbing harmful carbon dioxide. So appreciate these leafy friends by learning more about them. Get to know them a little better with these tips.



When you’re out for a tree walk, stay safe and be smart.


DO take a trusted adult with you whenever you go out to explore.


DO dress for a hike. If you’re walking through fields or woods, wear long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes. That way, insects won’t bite your legs and thorns won’t scratch your skin.

DO go out in summer or early fall. That’s when leaves are fully grown. It’s harder (but not impossible!) to identify a tree in winter.


DO watch out for critters. Trees are home to insects and other creatures. Keep your eyes open for animals that might bite or sting. And always leave animals alone.

DON'T touch any plant with three leaves. Poison ivy can grow on the ground or up the trunk of a tree as a vine. If you rub it, it can give you a terrible, itchy rash. Know what it looks like, and remember: Leaves of three, let it be.


DON'T hurt your fine green friends, the trees. Don’t break live tree branches or cut into or peel off tree bark.


DON'T lick or eat seeds, bark, or leaves. Some trees, like the Pacific Yew, have highly poisonous parts.


DON'T collect any leaves unless you have the permission of the tree’s owner.


DON'T take leaves or anything else if you’re in a protected area, like a national park.





So you’ve spotted two different trees in a nearby forest. Now what? Bring a tree field guide with you to help identify each one. Use the tips below to get started.




SHAPE Is the tree’s crown (the leafy part) round, pointy, or conical (cone-shaped)? Be aware that two trees of the same species can have different shapes. It depends on how crowded they are, how much sun they get, and how old they are.

To start identifying a tree, begin with its leaves. Are they needle-like or scaly? Are they broad and flat? Note whether the leaves have smooth or toothed edges. Are they lobed, like a hand? Do the tree’s twigs hold single leaves, or little leaflets along a single stalk? Are the leaves opposite each other, or do they alternate on the twig? Find the trees with those sorts of leaves in your guidebook.

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FLOWERS OR CONES Can you see flowers on the tree? What do they look like? How about cones? What are their shape and size?


FRUIT Does the tree have little winged seeds, acorns, or other growths that look like nuts or berries?


BARK Is it smooth or rough? What color is it? Is it peeling off?


HABITAT Check the tree’s surroundings. Are they wet and marshy? Open and sunny? Hills or valleys?

Text adapted from the Ultimate Explorer: Trees by Pat Daniels

Photographs: Cristina Stoian, Shutterstock (top); Carol R Montoya, Dreamstime (middle); George Bailey, Dreamstime (bottom)

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