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Trees have been called the structural elements of the ecosystem. They form the most
noticeable living objects except in the driest and coldest climates. Trees have whole
communities of other organisms associated with each type. Some birds or insects are
found only in broad-leaved trees, others in conifers. In addition, trees form levels in which
these communities of other animals are found. Blackburnian Warblers are found at the
tops of trees, Canada Warblers lower down. Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and
Woodpeckers are typically found on the trunks and larger branches.
Most botanists define trees as woody plants having a single stem and growing at least 10
feet tall -- the height of a basketball goal. Other definitions are used, but they are similar.
A shrub or bush, on the other hand, is a woody plant having multiple stems growing from
the same roots and is usually lower growing. An oak is a tree. Most lilacs are shrubs. At
the other end, trees can be gigantic. Some species, like Giant Sequoias, Coast Redwoods,
Douglasfirs, and some Eucalyptus, grow 300 feet tall or more and have trunks 30 feet
across. Some species also have very long life spans. The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine
often lives longer than 4,000 years.
That's right, four thousand. Some trees living today are as old as the most ancient
pyramids of Egypt. They were living when civilization began in the Indus Valley and the
earliest dynasties of China were founded. These trees were unimaginably ancient when
Troy fell to the Greek invaders. More than half their lifetime had passed by the time
Christ was born. The Norman invasion of England, the Viking discovery of North
America, and the Mongol Empire are recent history to them. Whole forests of several
species are alive now that were old when the first permanent European settlements in the
new world were founded.
Different kinds or species of trees can be told apart in many ways, some of them available
to the blind. The feel of the leaves, twigs, and bark varies from species to species. Some
trees have distinctive odors. Even the sounds the wind makes in the trees can be different
depending on the kind of tree. And some birds are heard in one kind of tree, but not in
Trees, in some form or another, have been around for a lot longer than we have. The first
plants to meet the general definition of trees were probably the giant tree ferns which are
now rare, but were common enough during the Carboniferous Era to form the coal and oil
deposits we now use.
Most trees, as we commonly think of them, fall into one of two groups which we can call
coniferous and broad-leaved. Most, but not all, conifers produce their seeds in woody
cones, exceptions being the junipers and yews and don't really have what we think of as
flowers. Most, but not all, broadleafs produce their seeds in more fleshy fruits, and have
flowers, even though many of the flowers are quite small. The conifers evolved before the
broadleafs; flowers didn't appear in the world until many millions of years after the
appearance of trees.
The easiest way to tell the broadleafs from the conifers, for either a blind or a sighted
person, is by the shape of the leaves. For the most part, leaves of conifers and smaller and
narrower than the leaves of broadleafs, thence the name. In North America, most conifers
retain their leaves during the winter. Exceptions are the Larches and the Baldcyprus.
Many, but not all, broadleafs lose their leaves in the winter. The chlorophyll in the leaves
is what gives them their green color, so when that is no longer produced, the other colors
that were present all along come through and the leaves change color. A layer forms
between the leaf stem and the twig to protect the tree from moisture loss, and then the
The easiest way for a blind or low vision person to begin the identification of trees is to
hold branches in his or her hand. On young trees, or those with low branches, that is easy.
Otherwise, you may need help.
The first thing to decide is whether the branch is from a conifer or a broadleaf. For the
most part, native broadleafs have much wider leaves than do conifers. Conifer leaves are
small and narrow or needle-like, or even flattened to the twig like the scales of a fish.
In telling conifers apart it is important to note how the leaves grow and what shape they
are. Some of these distinctions take a great deal of practice to learn. Don't be
discouraged; tree identification can be tough for sighted persons, too. If the leaves are flat
and grow singly, then the tree is most likely a fir, hemlock, yew, or baldcypress. If they
are rounded and grow singly, the tree is probably a spruce. Some spruce needles are very
sharp and stiff, so be careful not to get stabbed.
If the needles grow in groups directly from the twig, the tree is a pine. Pines can be told
apart by counting the number of needles. Larches or tamaracks are more difficult. On
young growth, the needles grow singly, but on older growth they grow in groups from
woody pegs. Larches lose their leaves in the fall.
Scale-like leaves are found on junipers, what we call cedars, cypresses, and some other
small groups. Practice is necessary for anyone who wants to learn trees. But you already
know something that most people don't -- not all conifers are pines. I don't know how
many times I've seen motels or other businesses called 'The Pines' when the place is
surrounded by spruces or firs and there isn't a pine for miles.
Once you have decided that a branch comes from a broad-leaved tree, the next thing to do
is to decide whether the leaves and small twigs grow opposite to each other on the twig or
whether they alternate along the length of the twig. This is often difficult to do; don't be
happy with finding just one example on the branch; find several. It is important to do so
because trees can be variable in their growth.
If the twigs or leaves grow opposite to each other, the tree is in the maple, ash, dogwood,
honeysuckle, or horsechestnut families. Next, decide if the leaves are simple or
compound. Of course, you cannot do this in the winter. Other, more difficult cues are
needed then. A compound leaf has a stem originating from the branch and leaflets
growing off of that. The best way to tell a leaf from a leaflet is to see if there is a bud
where the stem grows out of the branch it is on. If so, it is a leaf; if not, it is a leaflet.
This doesn't work in spring before the buds form.
The dogwoods and honeysuckles are generally small and have leaves with smooth, or only
slightly jagged or toothed edges. Maples have leaves with deep cuts in them. Ashes and
horsechestnuts (native ones are called buckeyes) have compound leaves. The
horsechestnuts or buckeyes have leaflets growing out in all directions from the end of the
leaf stem like the fingers of a hand. Ashes have leaflets growing along the sides of the leaf
If the tree is a broadleaf and has an alternate growth pattern, life gets tough. More than
half of the seven or eight hundred species of trees (depending on who's doing the
counting) in North America fall into this group. The best thing to do is to find out what
you have in your area, and then ask questions. Learn how to distinguish among the
important groups, first. In some areas, such as the northeast, the oaks are fairly easy to
tell from other groups. In some places, it is magnolias; others, poplars. If you can get at
the tree itself, the smooth, but peeling bark of some birches is a clue. The smooth bark of
beeches may be helpful.
In getting started learning the trees, find out what is around you, and don't hesitate to ask
questions. Don't worry about making a pest of yourself; people who really want to learn
something need to keep at it. If you learn the little bit of material on this page, you will be
way ahead of most people. Look for nature programs in your area. Check with local
Audubon chapters or groups serving the blind. Ask what is available and how to get
something offered. If there is any way NHEST can help, call or write. Our address and
phone number is below. And don't give up just because you can't identify something. I've
been at this for years and have full vision, and I still make mistakes. To help you, check our