How Can You Tell The Difference Between Two Types Of Trees

Trees have been around for millions of years. They have been our friends and neighbors from the time humans have existed. From purifying the air to providing food and shelter, trees have numerous usages and remain vital to human existence.

Although deforestation is a major problem facing us today, different types of trees still surround us. When you are on a stroll around your garden, neighborhood, or in the nearby park or forest, have you ever wondered how to tell the difference between two types of trees?

This article will provide you with helpful tips and information about identifying different tree types.

  • Two main categories of trees: deciduous and evergreens
  • Deciduous is usually hardwoods
  • Deciduous can have heart, star, or oval-shaped leaves
  • They shed their leaves in the fall
  • Evergreens are softwoods
  • They remain green all year-round
  • Evergreens have needle-shaped or scale-like leaves
  • Some evergreens are conifers with cones

Most trees belong to two primary groups: Deciduous or Evergreen. Deciduous trees have flat, broad leaves that change color and shed in fall. Evergreens or coniferous trees feature cones and needle-shaped leaves.

They stay green all-year-around. The shape of an evergreen tree is an inverted cone, while deciduous trees are round.

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Types of Trees

A tree is broadly defined as a “woody plant with usually a single stem growing to a height of at least two meters, or if multi-stemmed, then at least one vertical stem five centimeters in diameter at breast height,” by IUCN’s Global Tree Specialist Group (GTSG).

A study conducted in 2015 revealed that there are around three trillion trees on our planet, surpassing by far the previously estimated number, which was 400 billion.

Recently, scientists from the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a U.K based organization, stated that there are over 60,000 different kinds of tree species in the world. Amazon basin alone has over 11,000 plant species. Identifying these different species of trees is a daunting task reserved for the experts.

However, if you are interested in knowing more about trees in the surrounding landscape, there are simple techniques to identify which category a tree belongs to without having to study the topic in depth.

As stated earlier, there are two main types of trees: deciduous and evergreen. Some consider evergreens as synonymous with coniferous trees. These primary tree types have unique attributes that help us to tell them apart.

To distinguish between different types of trees, you can start by determining which broad category that the tree belongs to. If it is spring or summer, examining the leaves of the tree and noticing their shape, size, and thickness is a great way to start.

You can also notice the shape of the tree and other characteristics such as its bark, fruits, and the color of leaves to tell apart two types of trees.

Deciduous Trees

Deciduous trees are also known as hardwoods. These are commonly seen in mild, wet climates or regions with a wet and dry season. The term ‘deciduous’ means “falling off at maturity” or “tending to fall off” in botany and horticulture.

A key characteristic of deciduous trees is that they shed their leaves in fall to prepare for the arrival of cold weather. According to scientists, the leaves of deciduous plants don’t fall just because of the wind; instead, they actively partake in the process of shedding with cells that act like scissors to cut the leaves off in the fall.

The cut is then sealed to keep the winter cold away and the water inside the tree. During this process, deciduous trees produce beautiful autumn hues of red, yellow, orange, and purple. Fall foliage trees such as Sugar Maple, River Birch, Red Oaks, Autumn Blaze maple, American Sweetgum, Dogwood, Purple-Leaf Sand Cherry, and ‘Sunburst’ Honeylocust are some well-known deciduous trees.

But, not all deciduous trees take on the vibrant colors of fall. For example, trees such as silver maple, catalpa, or Lombardy poplar will not change their color. In tropical, subtropical, or dry areas of the world, deciduous trees shed their leaves in the dry season.

If you are standing under a tree in the fall, you will be able to tell whether it is a deciduous or an evergreen tree by looking at the color of the leaves and inspecting the ground underneath. If no leaves are present in winter, the tree will likely belong to the deciduous category.

Often, the shape of leaves will hold the key to what type of tree it is. To identify a deciduous tree, you can examine the shape of the leaves; deciduous trees commonly have leaves that are broad, wide, and flat. They can be heart, star, or oval-shaped.

The characteristics such as the shape of the tree, bark, fruit, blooms, and its size can also help you recognize which category a tree belongs to. Deciduous are large flowering hardwoods with blossoms often turning into seeds and fruit. The shape of a deciduous tree is often rounded, and branches spread out during its growth.

Evergreen Trees

The second major type of tree is evergreens. Evergreens are commonly found in tropical rainforests and warm, temperate climates, with fewer trees in cold climates.  Evergreen trees can be found everywhere in the United States.

A large number of evergreens grow in the wilderness. Many are planted as windbreakers, to reduce soil erosion, for privacy, and as fences and barriers. Among varied evergreen plants, many species are conifers such as pine, red cedar, and blue spruce.

Species such as live oak and holly, sequoia, and eucalyptus, and rain forest trees are also evergreens. Some deciduous trees have fruit or nuts.

A simple method of identifying the difference between evergreens and deciduous plants are their leaves. Evergreens may have broad leaves, but they are thicker than the leaves of deciduous plants.

Evergreens with thick and broad leaves usually exist in warmer, tropical climates. In cold regions of the world, evergreen plants are typically conifers with cones and pointy needles.

Some evergreen species have needles that are in bundles; needles can be smooth and round, appearing in groups of two, three, or five, while some have flat needles. These needles can be of varying lengths. For example, fir and spruce have shorter needles, while certain types of pines have 8 to 12 inch long needles. These needles could be stiff and prickly, or pliable.

Unlike deciduous trees, evergreens have foliage that remains green all-year-around. Evergreens do lose their leaves; however, this is a process that occurs gradually over time as the leaves age and fall and not all at once like deciduous trees.

You can identify evergreens by the presence of cones. Conifers or corn-bearing seed plants such as cedars, yews, firs, cypresses, pines, hemlocks, redwoods, and spruces are evergreen species.

Cones contain seeds for future planting and provide food for birds and small animals. In cold climates, most evergreens remain conifers since broad-leafed evergreen plants cannot tolerate extremely cold temperatures.

Conifers have leaves that are compact with a small surface area to reduce water loss and survive harsh weather conditions. Conifer needles can survive several years, and spruce needles can live almost a decade.

There is a waxy coating or a cuticle in the conifers to seal the water in and help the leaves survive longer. While conifers grow long-lasting leaves, deciduous trees invest in growing more leaf area to absorb as much sun when in season. By examining the color, size, and shape of needles, you will be able to identify the type of evergreen tree.

The shapes of evergreen and deciduous trees differ. Most evergreen trees have branches in an inverted cone shape with more branches spread at the bottom of the tree and a thinner peak like top.

Coniferous trees in cold climates look like Christmas trees. Deciduous tree branches, on the other hand, appear on the top of the tree and have a rounder shape.

The bark of evergreens has distinctive features with varied thickness, color, and texture. Their thickness can differ from fairly thin to almost a foot thick. The bark could be brown, yellow-brown, reddish-brown, dark brown, cinnamon, silver, gray, or black.

The fragrance of conifers is quite distinctive from deciduous trees. If you peel a bit of bark or crush a few needles between your fingers, you will note the pungent, refreshing scent of the tree.

Spruce, fir, cedar, and balsam have a specific scent. You might be able to tell them apart since these scents are popular in candles, shampoo, lotions, soaps, and sprays.

Deciduous Coniferous Trees

Although the difference between deciduous and evergreens seem very clear, there are some trees that fall into both categories.

For example, coniferous trees such as larch and tamarack have needles and cones but shed their leaves in the fall like deciduous plants.

Evergreen Broadleaf Trees

There are some evergreens that do not fit into deciduous or coniferous categories. For example, rhododendron and the mountain laurel are plants that stay green year-round but have broad flat leaves.

If you are unable to identify the type of tree on your own, there are popular apps today like LeafSnap and iNaturalist that will help you in your quest. If you like to know more about the tree, its bark will be an indicator. Y

ou can snap a picture and use an app to find out what tree it is.  The Arbor Day Foundation also has a quiz called “What Tree Is That” that will help you categorize the tree by answering few simple questions.