How to Identify Trees

Updated: Aug 22

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