Read more about how trees are named in Latin and their common names.

Differences between trees

Livings things evolve. If the problems they face are similar, they can opt for a similar solution. The need for light drives many otherwise unrelated plant families to evolve a single woody stem, making them ‘tree-shaped’.

Roses, for instance, are a distinct family of plants – we often think of them as flowers but all apple trees, the wild service tree, white beam and rowan are all part of the rose family. So, trees can belong to entirely different families yet resemble each other due to this  ‘convergent evolution’ – solving the same problem in the same way.

Trees can be grouped together in three main ways – some trees can belong to several groups!

1.By biological class gives us:

  • Gymnosperm (‘naked’ seed) – were the first trees to evolve. They have no flowers  – the seeds are scattered by the wind – pine cones for instance. Think of the gymnosperms as conifers, such as yew and Scots pine.
  • Angiosperm (‘hidden’ seed) – typically trees with flowers where seeds are hidden inside a fruit. They evolved alongside insects, birds and mammals and usually make use of them for pollination. Think of angiosperms as hardwoods, such as oak and beech.

Of course it’s not that easy – ash, birch and elm are angiosperms and use wind pollination in spite of their biological class.

2.By leaf shape gives us needle trees and broadleaf trees. Exceptions which prove this rule include gorse – a broadleaf tree (angiosperm) with needle-shaped leaves. Ginkgo is a conifer (gymnosperm) with broad flat leaves.

3. When they shed leaves gives us evergreen or deciduous. Think of  needle trees as evergreen and broadleaf trees as deciduous. Exceptions: larch is a needle tree (gymnosperm) which loses its leaves in winter and holly is a broadleaved tree (angiosperm) which keeps its leaves all year round.

Differences between similar trees

Individual trees are adaptable or ‘plastic’. Two trees of the same species can look quite different (have different ‘characteristics’). Variations may be due to the environment  – an oak  growing in an open field may look quite different from one that has grown up squashed between other trees.

Leaves can also vary, even on the same tree – they grow according to the available light. ‘Sun leaves’ tend to be near the top of the tree and have the most exposure to light. They are smaller in size and have less chlorophyll, making them lighter in colour and able to tolerate bright light without wilting. ‘Shade leaves’ are found where there is less light, such as the lower branches. Shade leaves are larger and contain more chlorophyll so they are darker in colour which helps them absorb light better.

Tree identification

Tree identification is based on characteristics, some of which only appear in certain seasons:

  • Short and squat, tall and thin with all sorts of shapes and sizes in between.
  • Leaves: shape, size and colour.
  • Flowers, fruit or cones: may only be found at certain times of the year
  • Each tree trunk or bark has a typical colour, pattern and texture.
  • Winter twigs and buds: usually quite distinctive in size, shape, colour and layout.

Tree Identification can be done using a computer and/or a mobile phone:

here is our list of Mobile Phone Apps and our list of websites that will help you identify a tree. Can you please let us know what you think?