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How to Identify Trees

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Everyone can name different types of dogs. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a chihuahua and a golden retriever. But how often have you met someone cool enough to know the distinction between different types of trees? Not often enough, I know.

So let’s start with the simple stuff: There are three basic kinds of trees in Quebec and they can be distinguished by their leaf types which are: (1) Needle, (2) Simple, and (3) Compound.

The first, needle, is the only kind that sticks around during the winter. The leaves are solid, sharp, and will hurt (so don’t prick yourself too hard. A little is allowed). The second and third types are very similar because they’re both broad, soft, and die off in the fall. However, the difference is that a simple leaf will grow on its own, whereas a compound leaf grows as a group.

Green Needle Leaf
(1) Needle
Simple Aspen (poplar or birch) leaf
(2) Simple
Compound Ash leaf
(3) Compound

Great! Now you know the basic kinds. Lucky for us, this gets more complicated when each of these three groups have subgroups.

The needle leaves can be split into three main groups: firs, pines and spruces. The easy way to tell the difference is by the amount of needles that grow in each group. Spruce and firs grow in singles, whereas pine grows in pairs (or more than two). I know, the lack of alliteration for firs upsets me too. But moving beyond that, the difference between firs and spruces is if you can roll them between your fingers. A spruce leaf is round, so rolling is easy, whereas a fir leaf is flat, so it can’t be rolled. There, we found some alliteration for firs.

Pair needled evergreen pine tree leaf
Single needle fir tree leaf
Single needle evergreen spruce christmas tree

Fir Spruce Pine

Next up we have simple leaves. Now this is where it might get confusing because a subgroup of simple leaves look a lot like compound leaves. For that reason let’s be clear on what to call the different parts of a tree.

Most people think that a twig is any small stick but that’s actually wrong. A twig is exclusively the very end part of a tree branch; the part of the tree that leaves grow from, typically brown or red in colour. Growing off of a twig you’ll have what’s called a leafstalk (or a petiole) which isn’t a woody texture and typically green. It’s from the leafstalk that a leaf with grow, not from a twig.

twig leafstalk petiole distinction simple leaf
twig leafstalk petiole distinction of compound ash leaf

That’s where the big difference between simple and compound leaves comes in. A simple leaf will grow alone off of one leafstalk, whereas a compound leaf has many leaves growing off of a leafstalk. Once you can make a clear distinction between the two kinds, it’s easier to understand the subgroups: opposite and alternate.

alternate vs opposite simple leaves tree

Much like the names imply, opposite and alternate leaves differ in the spacing of the leafstalks.

Opposite leaves grow mirroring each other on a twig, whereas alternate leaves grow at alternate spacing on the twig. Now if you’re lost don’t worry, I was too when I first learnt all of this. Take a good look at the pictures and hopefully it’ll make more sense.

Now. I know this got a little more technical than you might’ve expected but I promise it was worth it. You’re the one who wanted to know more about trees in the first place, right? So let’s get to identifying some trees.

Hopefully you already understood how to identify the needle trees, but when it comes to broad leaf trees there’s one more term you should know: lobe. A sexy term, I know. It’s easier to show than explain so please reference the pictures around this bubble of text.

round lobed oak tree leaf
elm tree leaf no lobes toothed
oak tree leaf sharp lobed

Now that you’re wise in the ways of trees, let’s finally look at a brief description of the most common ones and how you can identify them. It’s probably what you scrolled through the rest of this article to find, so here it is. For the record, this does not include every type of tree, just the basic ones you might find in Montreal. Also for simplicity’s sake it doesn’t go into the specific sub categories of each type.

Identification Guide

evergreen pine tree in the wild


Leaf distribution: -

Leaf Type: Needle (pair)

Bark texture: Dark rectangular-ish plates.

Branches grow higher up on tree trunk.

Average Height: 45-60m

evergreen spruce christmas tree in the wild

SPRUCE (common Christmas tree)

Leaf distribution: -

Leaf Type: Needle (single). Very stiff and sharp.

Bark texture: Dark and rough. Branches grow more

at the bottom and are evenly spread around the trunk.

Average Height: 20-30m

cedar tree leaf scale needles

CEDAR (or junipers)

Leaf distribution: -

Leaf Type: Needle (compound! I know, weird). Not sharp, but more soft and flat. Looks kind of like scales.

Bark texture: Fibrous with cross-hatch ridges (think plaid).

Average Height: 1.7m

fir tree in the wild


Leaf distribution: -

Leaf Type: Needle (single). Flat, easy to bend.

Bark texture: Smooth bark with resin blisters (shiny spots). Branches tend to point upward.

Average Height: 10-80m

buckeye tree leaf


Leaf distribution: Opposite

Leaf Type: Compound. No lobes. Leaves grow like the spokes of a wheel so it looks like a marijuana leaf, lol.

Bark texture: Kinda scaly.

Average Height: 15-25m

ash tree leaf


Leaf distribution: Opposite

Leaf Type: Compound. No lobes.

Bark texture: Dark with tight ridges interwoven together to make a cool pattern.

Average Height: 30-40m

maple tree leaves in the fall


Leaf distribution: Opposite

Leaf Type: Simple. Sharp lobes. If you can’t remember the shape, our country’s flag might help.

Bark texture: Inner-city maples have smooth grey bark that could be flaking. These could include but aren’t limited to Red and Silver maples. If you go farther outside of the city you might find Sugar or Black maples, which produce our wonderful maple syrup and have darker grey-brown bark.

Average Height: 12-20m

sumac tree leaf


Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Compound. Red leafstalk, no lobes.

Bark texture: Dark and smooth with thin long raised cuts that cross each other.

Average Height: 6m

tuliptree leaf


Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Simple. Pointy lobes.

Bark texture: Light grey, often lightened in grooves.

Average Height: 50m

catalpa tree leaf with beans


Leaf distribution: Opposite

Leaf Type: Simple. No lobes, BIG, looks kind of like a Lilypad. If you’ve seen a tree in Montreal with long beans growing from it, it’s this one. White flowers in the spring.

Bark texture: Thick scales. Red/brown in colour.

Average Height: 15-30m

hackberry tree leaf with berry and fall colour


Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Simple. No lobes, small. Small round red individual berries.

Bark texture: Light brown, big ridges (thiccc scales).

Average Height: 35m

poplar aspen trees in the wild

POPLAR (or aspen)

Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Simple. No lobes. Rounded triangular shape.

Bark texture: White (maybe a little yellow) and smooth like birch but doesn’t peel.

Average Height: 15-50m

birch tree bark peeling


Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Simple. Smaller, kind of egg shaped.

Bark texture: White and smooth like aspens but naturally peels off into rolls. Fallen birch bark is fantastic for starting fires. (while camping only. Please don’t start a fire in Montreal)

Average Height: 15-25m

elm tree leaf on bark


Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Simple. No lobes.

Bark texture: Greyish with vertical ridges that cross each other.

Average Height: 15-30m

alder leaves in the wild


Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Simple. No lobes. Small and round.

Bark texture: Dark bark with lots of small white vertical lines.

Average Height: 12-24m

willow tree leaf


Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Simple. No lobes. Long thin leaves, tend to hang downwards.

Bark texture: Light brown, edged. Branches often curl.


Leaf distribution: Alternate

Leaf Type: Simple, lobed. Honestly there are like 30 kinds of oak but if it’s a longer leaf with lots of symmetric lobes then it’s likely an oak. Most common type in Montreal is the Northern Red oak. White oaks have round lobes and Red oaks have sharp lobes. Best way to ID an oak is simply by looking at the leaf itself.

Bark texture: Bark dark and furrowed, with broad shiny strips.

Average Height: 10-40m

oak tree leaves and types

That’s it! Congrats, hopefully you now know a little more about the wonderful trees around us. Use this knowledge at a party to impress and I guarantee that it’ll work (if not, you’re at a party I certainly wouldn’t want to be at).


C. Frank Brockman, Rebecca Marrilees. “Trees of North America – A Guide to Field Identification” Golden Field Guides from St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

Janet Wehr, George A. Petrides. “Eastern Trees” Peterson Field Guides, 1988.


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