Tree Identification Tools

— Written By

Screen Shot of the Cover of the Tree ID APP Many gardeners can distinguish among major groups of trees, but identifying genus and species can be challenging. Botanists use morphological features—including leaf shape and arrangement, leaf hairs, presence or absence of thorns, and especially fruit and flower structures—to distinguish among species.

For precise identification, species are sorted by such character traits using a systematic tool called a dichotomous key. Dichotomous keys present two sets of characteristics in a couplet. Users select one of the two choices that more accurately describes the specimen.

Each choice will lead the user to a new couplet. This process is repeated until the final choice leads to a specific plant species. Due to the huge number of potential species, most keys focus on a set of plants in a geographical area. The Flora of North America is 30 volumes—enough for several bookshelves!

However, technology has made using keys easier than ever. The NC State University Herbarium and its partners have developed several online keys helpful to gardeners. Trees of North Carolina is an easy-to-use online key for native trees from across the state. Winter Twig Keys will help you identify trees using the buds, leaf scars, and other features visible in winter, with a focus on common trees in the eastern NC piedmont. These tools can enhance your botanical skills and help you become more familiar with common native species on your property.

—Matt Jones

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