Trees are a vital part of the world today. They filter the air we breathe, and they provide shade on hot days. There are so many important things that trees provide for us, yet so many people do not know how to identify trees or care to even learn.
Fortunately, learning to identify trees is much easier than it has ever been before due to the Internet. There are several different apps for smartphones, and there are many websites that are excellent resources to help anyone that wants to learn about trees. No matter where you go to learn how to identify trees, most sources will use the same system.
Plant names are typically expressed in their Latin names, each comprised of two separate words. The first word is capitalized, and it is known as the genus. This term generally includes a number of species. For instance, Pinus ponderosa and Pinus strobus are two separate species, but the first word is the same because they are both pines, and therefore, in the genus, Pinus.
The second word in plant names is the specific epithet, or species. It is always lower-case, and it identifies which type of pine, fir, spruce, maple, etc. it is.
But before you even begin to distinguish the differences between the trees, it is best to identify its location. If a tree is growing naturally, meaning it was not planted as part of a landscape, it is much easier to determine the species because there are significant differences in trees native to various areas of the country. For example, if a tree white pine is seen growing on the east coast, there is a good chance that it is an Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus.
Once you have determined the growing conditions of the tree you are attempting to identify, it is best to turn your attention to the leaves or needles of the tree. Each species has slightly different foliage, making it easier to tell them apart. Large differences can be noted, such as whether the needles are arranged in clusters or individually. Most pines have needles arranged in bunches called fascicles; whereas, firs and spruce have needles arranged solitarily. This will generally help determine the genus but further research or a substantial knowledge will be needed to determine the species.
Additionally, cones can be helpful identifiers for conifers. Fir cones stand erect on the upper branches of true firs (Abies sp.), and although some look similar to spruces (Picea sp.), the drooping cones of the spruces are readily distinguishable from those of the firs.
Abies georgei cones vs. Picea purpurea cones
Determining the genus is easy, but the various species of each genus is quite challenging in some cases! Because they are all closely-related, they look much more similar, and a good reference book with vivid descriptions or illustrations is essential to obtain an accurate identification.
Knowing the different varieties of each species is even more useful when wandering through your local garden center, so you can tell how each plant will develop based on its form, color, and texture. Below is a photo of 20 different cultivars of the species Picea pungens (Colorado Spruce). The variation is astounding and very beautiful!