What exactly is that tree growing in your backyard? If you're uncertain, there is a fairly simple step-by-step process that will help you identify any tree. Each tree has its own distinct features, such as leaf shape, seed pods or fruit. Once you begin examining these features, identification will follow. A field guide will help, as will any tree-identification website. Once you become familiar with the characteristics of specific trees, identifying them will become second nature.
Observe the tree's leaves or needles to determine whether it is coniferous or deciduous. Coniferous trees have pine cones and needles or scaly leaves that remain on the tree all year. Deciduous trees usually have broad, flat leaves that fall off in the autumn. Field guides group trees into these broad categories as a first step toward identification. Some trees fall into special categories, such as trees that have evergreen leaves that are not needles. An example is the Southern magnolia, which has thick, flat, glossy evergreen leaves.
Determine the type of leaf or needle on the tree. Recognizing the leaf shape often is the easiest way to identify a tree. An oak leaf, for example, has deep lobes and rounded edges. The ginkgo tree has a distinctive fan shape. An eastern redbud has heart-shaped leaves. Pines have needles, and cedars have flat scales for leaves. The color of the needle will provide another clue. The Colorado blue spruce, for example, has silvery-blue needles. Many Japanese maples have red leaves year-round.
Look at any flowers on the tree. This is another easy way to identify its species. The Japanese flowering cherry, for example, is recognizable by its clusters of pink or white blossoms that cover the branches before leaves emerge in spring. The showy, fragrant, star-shaped blossoms of the magnolia make it easy to identify in spring.
Examine the bark of the tree for color, texture and other characteristics. Some trees have unique bark, such as the paper birch. Its bark peels off in smooth, papery, curled sheets. The European buckthorn has horizontal white markings on its bark.
Step back and observe the shape of the tree. This will provide further insight into the tree type. A vase shape, for example, could indicate an elm tree. A tree with drooping branches could be a weeping willow or weeping cherry.