How to Tell What Type of Tree You Have

In our front yard there’s a giant oak tree that takes up the entire lawn. I know it’s an oak tree because they are common and easy to spot. Every autumn it sheds a large number of its leaves into the grass below – not to mention acorns (and with them, squirrels!). But it never sheds entirely and the leaves never change color. All of these characteristics are traits of a big, strong, sturdy oak tree. These are traits I learned growing up because I grew up around nothing but oak trees and pine trees. Acorns and pinecones. Leaves and needles. Wouldn’t it be great if every tree was as easy to spot as an oak or a pine?

There’s also a tree in my backyard. Well, technically it’s in my neighbor’s yard but it’s right up against the fence and the majority of the tree hangs above my yard. I’ve never known what type of tree it was until recently. It’s leaves were foreign to me and I’d hardly ever seen the strange berry that grew on it. I’d given up trying to identify it for a few years, but still it bothered me. To make matters even more confusing there’s also an ivy that grows all around its trunk. I couldn’t tell if it was part of the tree or a different plant completely (turns out it was the latter).

Then, one day, I was sitting on my back porch with my dogs when Arizona (my husky) came bounding across the lawn with a branch from the tree firmly in her jaw. I took the branch, plucked off a stem with a group of leaves and berries on it and took out my phone. I thought to myself surely there would be some sort of online database where some professional would be able to tell me what type of tree this was. Not only did I find exactly what I was looking for, but I also found a multitude of resources online for identifying trees, shrubs, bushes, flowers, and even grass that you may not recognize!

It was a Hackberry Tree, by the way. I mean it still is. It’s still there, looming over my backyard – completely shedding its entire collection of leaves into my lawn every winter, but at least I now know its name.

Here, I’ve compiled a list of different apps and websites you can use to identify mystery plants in your own yards. Hopefully I can spare some of you the same inquisitiveness I had about my own tree for so many years (2…2 years, it’s not that many, Jonathan). Happy…identifying!

 

1. Arbor Day Foundation

Arbor Day Foundation runs a very easy to use program called “What Tree is That?” The program is very straight forward and starts by asking you what region of the United States you live in. My apologies to those of you who live outside of the United States (all 7.1 Billion of you). It then takes you through a rigorous process of selecting different traits of the leaves of the tree until it finally selects the best match for you.

The results page of “What Tree is That?” includes only 1 result – the best match. There is also a link to learn more about the tree it selected and a map of where the tree grows most often.

In addition to the website, Arbor Day Foundation also has a mobile version of “What Tree is That?” available for iPhone and a book, available here.

WD Rating: 3.5/5

 

2. Oplin.Org

The interface of Oplin.org is, I’ll admit, a little dated – but it’s also a very useful tool! I recommend this service because not only can you search by using the leaf, you can also search by using the fruit, or even the name of the tree.

At every step of the identification process on “What Tree is it?”, Oplin gives you different types of trees that fit within that category. I love that. Not only can I use what I know about the tree I have, but I can also use what little tree knowledge I have to determine if I am on the right track by paying attention to the other trees in that category.

The results page of Oplin’s resource gives only 1 result – the best match. The rest of the page is filled with amazing facts about the tree including characteristics of the tree itself, the leaves on the tree, and the fruit the tree bears.

WD Rating: 3/5

 

3. Pl@ntNet

When it came time for me to pick a service to use to identify the tree in my back yard, I used quite a few of them. Distressed that they were all giving me different answers, I decided to try one more service and trust what the answer it gave was. That service was Pl@ntNet.

Pl@ntNet has a very easy to use website as well as app developed for both iPhone and Android. In addition to their plant identifying service (that’s right, it’s more than just trees), they also have an extensive database of plants seen across the globe including new species discoveries and continuously updated traits of even the most common plants.

What I like most about the results page of Pl@ntNet’s service is that it gives you more than 1 possibility of what plant you may have. I’m not the best at identifying the different characteristics of plants and I don’t know much about the terminology either. Having them give me more than one option was nice because it allowed me to narrow my search down even further using pictures of actual trees as a guide. That’s how I was finally able to identify that the tree in my backyard was 100% definitely a Hackberry tree.

Another great service provided by Pl@ntNet is the ability to take a picture of the plant’s leaf or berry you are searching for and let the app do all the work for you! I would rate Pl@ntNet a perfect score if not for the fact that you have to create an account to use the service and when using the app pictures may take a while to load (or not load at all).

WD Rating: 4.5/5

 

4. PictureThis – Plant Identification

PictureThis has one of the most beautiful user interfaces out there. There is no denying the impact that a great looking interface can have for your service, and PictureThis hits it out of the park. PictureThis takes the searching method out of the picture completely. There’s no way for you to click through and identify for yourself the different characteristics of the tree – you just take a picture and SNAP! PictureThis gives you a couple of the best matches for whatever you took a picture of.

The results page for PictureThis is pretty standard. Instead of taking you to a different page, whatever you took a picture of is simply moved to the top of the screen and the closest matches appear below. I tried PictureThis on a couple of plants around my house that I already knew the name of. On a couple of occasions, the actual plant wasn’t listed as a best match, though that could be because I am a poor photographer.

What I like most about PictureThis is that it identifies just about any plant you can think of. From flowers to trees to dog-weeds, there isn’t any plant that’s not in PictureThis’s database. That may be because in addition to the identification service, people can also take pictures of plants around them and post them to the Observations section of PictureThis – a kind of mass database creation. Genius!

PictureThis is only available on mobile services for iPhone and Android.

WD Rating: 4/5

 

5. Leafsnap

Another mobile friendly identification service, Leafsnap is unique in that it was developed by Ivy League researchers and the Smithsonian.

From the Leafsnap website: “The free mobile apps use visual recognition software to help identify tree species from photographs of their leaves. They contain beautiful high-resolution images of leaves, flowers, fruits, petioles, seeds and bark.”

You can also use the Leafsnap website to browse through their extensive database of pictures to attempt to identify your tree that way – you may also learn a lot about lots of different trees and plants across the United States and Canada. The only downfall to Leafsnap’s service is just that – availability. As of right now, only those trees native to the northern half of the North American continent are included with plans to expand in the future.

Leafsnap is only available for use on iPhone. You can’t use the service online or on Android.

WD Rating: 3.5/5

 


 

So that’s it! Any one of these 5 services would be a great choice in your efforts of identify you plants. If you’re looking for a definitive answer as to which service is the best, well I can’t really answer that. It just depends on what you’re looking for! As for me, Pl@ntNet was the best service for helping me identify my tree, which is why it received the best score – but you could have a different result! Happy Identifying!

 

-Jonathan

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