Shortcuts to Dendrology?
November 12, 2014 5:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for shortcuts, mnemonics, hacks or cheats to become an expert at identifying trees. What helped you? Despite having a passion for the woods, owning several great books on tree identification and even carrying an ID chart, the business of saying "Ah! An elm! Hey! A lime!" or indeed "No. 1: The Larch. The Larch" still eludes me. Please note - I'm in the UK.
posted by tzb to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think it's mostly about getting to know the trees. Pretty much every native or common tree in the UK has clear, distinctive features - particularly in the leaf shapes. You can probably already spot a silver birch or a European oak from a mile away. Once you know that a particular place has lots of (say) whitebeams, you can observe how the appearance of that species changes in different conditions and at different times of year.

Maybe try to learn one tree really well every month, and then make a point of looking for that one specific species as you walk around.
posted by pipeski at 6:46 AM on November 12, 2014

I was never able to connect trees and flowers to the pictures in books until I started going weekly nature walks with a guide. (I was volunteering with a parks program.)

I was with the program from winter to fall, which was particularly helpful to see leafy trees in their different stages. In the winter, you just see the bones of the tree, then the buds in spring, the full leaves in summer, then that particular tree's spectrum of color in the fall. They never look quite like the book!

After you learn the predominate trees in the area, it's a lot easier to pick out the unusual ones and identify them with your book.

It was also helpful for me to learn which animals interact with different trees, so I could look for animal evidence (like burrows and nests) to help see the story of that particular tree.
posted by mochapickle at 6:55 AM on November 12, 2014

In high school biology class, I once had to make a book of leaf prints, finding 20 different species or whatever. For some reason, the act of having to go out, find a tree, get a leaf, and make a print has stuck with me so that even as a total amateur, 15 years on I can still sort of identify some trees by leaf. So starting a leaf-print book might help you! (Or a sketchbook, whatever makes you have to "interact" with the tree beyond just looking at it).
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:37 AM on November 12, 2014

"You can't shake hands with a spruce."
posted by humboldt32 at 8:34 AM on November 12, 2014

I have always made a practice of keeping a sprig--preferably with a bit of twig and leaf, and possibly a bud, a fruit, flower, a thorn, or something else unique--and putting those in my books. I do this even for trees that I know well (I'm in Texas). That way I'm connecting theory with practice in a very real way.
posted by resurrexit at 9:03 AM on November 12, 2014

Not sure if this is what you're after, but white pines have clusters of 5 long needles (one for each letter in white), while red pines have clusters of two. Doesn't work as well in the UK, unfortunately, where white pines are apparently called Weymouth pines.
posted by that's candlepin at 11:03 AM on November 12, 2014

Best answer: Two things that have helped me. (I'm so glad other people who are obsessed with tree id-ing are not naturals at it!)
1. Keeping tree identification books in the bathroom so I end up flipping through the whole book multiple times. Yes, the tree will look different out there, but just repeated exposure to the official description and a sample image helps me remember what I am supposed to be looking for.
2. Going to botanical gardens or university campuses where trees are labeled.

I admit to having a huge advantage now that I live in Honolulu, because the tropical clime makes 4-season identification unnecessary. As mochapickle said, trees change so much over the course of a year. For a Local Flora class I took as an undergraduate, I got okay at identifying trees based on their bark and bud/branch structure (Feb/Mar/Apr) but then our exams happened in late spring and I was so confused by all the leaves that I nearly failed the final.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:27 AM on November 12, 2014

A few things that have (accidentally) worked for me.

1) Spending a day/some time looking for a specific type of tree across a wide area in several locations - particularly during a season where it has set seed/fruit. (The actual purpose for me was collecting seed/fruit, so possibly getting up close and personal and spending a fair amount of time with lots of the same species added to the effect.) After a few days of this, I was able to recognise the trees I'd been looking for from a distance/in a crowd in the same way you can recognise a person from a distance/in a crowd by shape, clothes, movement habits, but without seeing the details or the face.

2) Working from specific trees you see a lot, like in a park you visit mulitple times per week or something. Pick an individual tree, say 'what kind of tree are you?', answer that question with a book and look at all the details of it from the book to the real thing, and check back in with it over time, and move out to seeing if you can spot other trees of the same type in your wider world.

Other than a few accidental successes, I'm in the same boat as you and wish I wasn't, so your question made me think about it, which is good, and maybe I'll make an effort now. I've had fun and learned a lot with other Usborne Spotter's Guides, but haven't yet gotten around to trying their Trees one yet. Maybe I'll pick that one up soon.
posted by you must supply a verb at 1:47 AM on November 13, 2014

My sister took a forestry class and hiking around some woods with her I picked up "spiny spruce, friendly fir." That's really all I know.
posted by bubonicpeg at 4:58 AM on November 13, 2014

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