Dancing Hawks
foliage finder
caption Identify the Northeast's favorite trees. Illustration by Tenaya Gordon.

Identify the Northeast's favorite trees

By Patrick Bagley
AMC Outdoors, May 2009

Want to learn about local trees? For starters, stop worrying about their names. So says Nancy Ritger, AMC's senior interpretive naturalist, who advises hundreds of budding tree aficionados at AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center each year. "It's much more important to learn the patterns." With that in mind, here are a few of her favorite clues that could help you distinguish between maple, oak, and birch. 

If you see a tree dropping acorns, you know you're looking at an oak. You can also tell an oak by its leaves, which are more long than wide and typically have seven deeply cut lobes. If you find such a leaf with rounded, wave-like lobes, you are probably looking at the white oak, which thrives from Florida to Maine and as far west as the Great Plains.Northern red oak has a similar distribution, save the southernmost states such as Texas and Florida, and its leaves have jagged, pointy lobes. Oak trees, like many others, have alternate branching, which means the limbs of the tree will grow from the trunk in a staggered pattern.

It takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make a gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires 40 to 50 gallons of sap.
Like oak, birch trees also have alternate branching. Examining bark is the best way to identify birch. White birch, commonly found at higher altitudes, is known as "paper birch" because the bark peels away like a scroll. (Note: If you must have a scrap of this bark for a souvenir, take a sample that has already fallen to the ground; avoid pulling the bark from the tree as this compromises the tree's defense against invading insects and harsh elements.) If you are in a valley or by a river you will probably find grey birch, which has bark that stays snug against the tree. Also, distinct and black ridges that resemble eyebrows can be found where branches grow from the trunk of grey birches. Yellow birch is found high and low and its bark peels in thin, wispy strips. Birch leaves do not have any telltale lobes, however Ritger says the leaves appear somewhat heart-shaped. Grey birch leaves look like a heart, while those of white birch tend to have an aggressive side cut and tapered ends. Yellow birch leaves are almost uniformly oblong and least resemble a heart.

The biggest hint for identifying a maple is that pairs of branches grow at equal heights but on opposite sides of the trunk. According to Ritger, of the dozen or so trees that have opposite-sided branches, none is as common as the maple. And if maples are producing fruits (which occurs during the fall or spring, depending on the type of maple), you will probably notice the "winged seeds," or samaras, fluttering to the ground like a rotating helicopter blade. If you can picture the Canadian flag, you will have no trouble identifying a maple's iconic five-lobed leaf. Come autumn these leaves will show brilliant foliage. Sugar maples usually turn orange. True to their name, red maples turn a fiery hue, show their colors early, and are often found near lakes or marshes.