Tree ID and Classification

By April 4, 2020 No Comments

There’s no time like the present to learn something new.

Central Michigan is home to dozens of different tree and shrub species. For a novice in tree identification the variety can be overwhelming. If you don’t know a pine from an oak from a hickory how do you begin?

One thing that makes identification easier is the ability to divide (or classify) the species into different groups based on shared characteristics. One of the simplest steps is to learn how to differentiate between needle-leaf and broadleaf species; then you can learn how to tell the difference between simple leaves and compound leaves.

If you are scratching your head right now, it’s actually quite easy.  A needle-leaf tree has leaves shaped like…wait for it… a needle! Think of trees like pines and spruces. The Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and junipers are also classified as a needle-leaf trees, but their leaves take the form of overlapping scales (sort of like fish scales) instead of needles.

Most of the needle-leaf species are also evergreen; they keep their leaves year round. (There is one major exception to needle-leaf trees being evergreen; the Tamarack (Larix laricina) loses its needles each fall.)

A broadleaf tree is any tree that is not a needle-leaf.  Instead, a broadleaf tree has broad (or wide) leaves.

Broadleaf trees can be further divided into simple leaves and compound leaves

Simple leaves are those that have one leaf on one stem.  The shape and size of the leaf do not matter; if the leaf has only one part it is a simple leaf.  That leaf can have smooth edges, serrated (toothed) edges, or edges that are divided into lobes (think of the way your ear lobe sticks off your ear).  See, it’s simple!

In contrast, compound leaves are not simple.  Instead of having one leaf on one stem, compound leaves have one stem with multiple leaflets.  These small leaflets are each distinct from one another – meaning that they are not connected to each other, but only to the stem that they share. Compound leaves can even be double compounded, with each division further divided into even smaller leaflets. A good example being the Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos).

Below are the leaves of forty species of trees/shrubs that can be found in Central Michigan. Most of these species can be found on one or more Chippewa Watershed Conservancy preserve. Can you classify these leaves by type? The answers are at the bottom of the page!


American Basswood – simple broadleaf

American Beech – simple broadleaf

American Bladdernut – compound broadleaf

American Hornbeam – simple broadleaf

Balsam Fir – needle-leaf

Bigtooth Aspen – simple broadleaf

Bitternut Hickory – compound broadleaf

Black Cherry – simple broadleaf

Black Locust – simple broadleaf

Black Maple – simple lobed broadleaf

Boxelder – compound broadleaf

Bur Oak – simple lobed broadleaf

Butternut – compound broadleaf

Chinquapin Oak – simple broadleaf

Eastern Cottonwood – simple broadleaf

Eastern White Pine – needle-leaf (always in bunches of five)

Green Ash – compound broadleaf

Honey Locust – (doubly) compound broadleaf

Mountain Maple – simple lobed broadleaf

Northern Pin Oak – simple lobed broadleaf

Northern White Cedar – compound needleleaf (the only compound needle-leaf on the list)

Pawpaw – simple broadleaf

Pignut Hickory – compound broadleaf

Prickly Ash – compound broadleaf

Quaking Aspen – simple broadleaf

Red Maple – simple lobed broadleaf

Red Oak – simple lobed broadleaf

Red Pine – needle-leaf (always in bunches of two)

Sassafras – simple lobed broadleaf

Scots Pine – needle-leaf (always in bunches of two)

Shagbark Hickory – compound broadleaf

Silver Maple – simple lobed broadleaf

Speckled Alder – simple broadleaf

Spicebush – simple broadleaf

Sugar Maple – simple lobed broadleaf

Swamp White Oak – simple broadleaf (rarely lobed)

Sycamore – simple lobed broadleaf

White Ash – compound lobed broadleaf

White Oak – simple lobed broadleaf

Witch-hazel – simple broadleaf