Forestry 101: Tree Identification Using Leaves

This is my first guest writer and who better to do the first one than my 11 year old son James!
He recently attended his first away camp at Rock Eagle, Georgia near Oconee National Forest. This is the world's largest 4-H camp with nearly 1,500 acres of forested land and 110 acre lake.

Welcome James...

My favorite class at camp was Forestry. Our leader took us on a hike in the woods and pointed out leaves of different native trees. She told us about some unique ways to remember these trees by looking at their leaves.

White Oak

The leaves of the white oak are long rounded lobes. Our leader said a good way to remember this is that the American Indians called the settlers "white men" (white oak) and the leaves are rounded like the "white man's gun bullet" (rounded lobes).

Red Oak

Photo courtesy of Greater Michigan Timber Management

Red Oak leaves grow red in the spring and in summer change to dark green so they are not as easy to identify. The red oak's leaves come to a point like a red man's spear or arrow (Settlers called American Indians "red men").

Sugar Maple

The sugar maple leaf has five points. Each point spells out the word S-U-G-A-R.

Red Maple

photo courtesy of kcfehring

The red maple has three points as if to spell R-E-D.

Tulip Popular

Me behind a tulip popular leaf

The tulip popular has a unique leaf and is hard to confuse with any other tree. The leaves look like a cat's head. The top two petals are the ears and the bottom two are the cat's grin and whiskers. Can you see it?


This is the easiest native tree to identify because it is the only tree to have three different shaped leaves. One leaf is shaped like a mitten, one leaf looks like a three toed dinosaur footprint and one is a single oval.

Having stories or clever clues makes it easy to remember the tree and easier to identify them. When I got home I went into our back yard and found out that we have all these trees.

Thank you James for sharing your learning experience with us!

*     *     *

A few more words on trees...

The record rainfalls this year in the Southeast, after years of drought, has made for some interesting challenges for trees. In our area many large trees are falling down due to ground saturation. This is an important reminder to have trees in your garden properly maintained by a certified arborist.

Recently I read about a new study by scientists with the U.S. Forest Service and Harvard University which suggests that trees are responding to higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by becoming more efficient at using water.

Terrestrial plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, a process that is accompanied by the loss of water vapor from leaves. The ratio of water loss to carbon gain, or water-use efficiency, is a key characteristic of ecosystem function that is central to global cycles of water, energy and carbon.

According to the study findings, how efficient trees are at using water has big implications for ecosystem function. Improved water availability could partially offset the effects of future droughts. On the other hand, reduced evapotranspiration, as a result of higher water-use efficiency, could lead to higher air temperatures, lower humidity levels and decreased recycling of continental precipitation.

Photo credit: Chris Vogel
This devise (a sonic aenomometer and air inlet tube) allows for the continuous monitoring of gas exchange between the forest and the atmosphere. It is located at University of Michigan Biological Station.

The study was published in the on-line journal Nature. For more information you can view it here.


  1. Well done James. I like the S-U-G-A-R Maple trick, a new one for me.
    Karin, interesting info on the water-use efficiency of trees.

  2. Nice job, guest poster! Love it, Karin!

  3. Excellent tips for memory tricks, James. I'll admit that most of my "magic" for plant identification is memorization.

  4. This was wonderful James. Trees are so important and I like that you have such an interest in forestry. Maybe one day you will find ways to help our trees.

    Karin, I too have read the recent study and did find it quite understandable that trees are indeed finding ways to cope with lessening water supplies. Since many trees have suffered in the last number of years with drought conditions, the roots are compromised as a result, offering less structural support. So when excessive rains saturated soils, they were very likely to topple in the softened conditions having less root structure to hold them in place.

    I enjoyed this post, and hope to see James posting again.

  5. James: I enjoyed your post, and learned some new things. Thank you. Karin: Thanks for letting James participate! I hope you're both enjoying your summer!

  6. What a lovely post Karin, congratulations for having a son like James! Whoever concocted that SUGAR pnemonics for kids is very creative and interesting! By the way Karin, i have been searching on the amount of CO2 a plant (maybe in height or weight) consumes per unit per time, but i can't see a concrete answer. I was averted by so many literature that were so interesting too, and i lost my purpose, haha. YOu might know the answer please, thanks.

  7. That tulip poplar leaf makes a great mask!

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed this guest post and learned so much...James has a great way of teaching about leaves...i spent my youth at 4-H and Y camps in Indiana and Michigan. I also enjoyed the study Karin.

  9. Tis is definitely a great start!! It is never too early to have children interested in research and nature. Congrats to both!!.

  10. Hi Karin, I have a question for you... there is a plant (or weed) that grows in Wisconsin w perennial wildflowers that looks like sassafras but isn't, the edges of the leaf have a sawtooth. I looked on line to try and identify it but couldnt find it, any ideas? I could send a pic if you need one.

  11. Thanks for posting this info. I just want to let you know that I just check out your site and I find it very interesting and informative. I can't wait to read lots of your posts. Land Management


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One of my favorite things about blogging is the conversation with readers. Leave a comment and let's get talking. ~Karin

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