Identifying Major Trees of the Southern U.S.

The tree ID method presented here uses simple leaf and twig characteristics (tree tools) to separate trees into a few major groups.

An ‘acromonic’ (part acronym, part mnemonic) is provided to help you remember the main trees in each group.

Once you narrow a tree down to its group, you use more detailed characteristics to pick your tree from the group.

Tree Tools


Trees can be classified based on the arrangement of the leaves on the twig.  Leaves may be arranged in pairs opposite each other on the twig.  This is called opposite leaf arrangement.  Leaves may also be arranged one after the other along the twig.  This is called alternate leaf arrangement.

Some trees have leaves composed of many small leaflets arranged along a slender green leaf stem.  This kind of leaf is called a compound leaf.

Other trees have leaves composed of just one leaflet (the leaf).  This kind of leaf is called a simple leaf. It is what we think of when we think of a typical tree leaf.



Some trees have leaves with teeth.  Other trees have toothless leaves.



How to tell the difference between a leaf and a leaflet

1. Grab the possible leaf  between your fingers.
2. Follow it back to where it attaches.
3. If it attaches to a woody or semi-woody twig, then it really is a leaf.
4. If it attaches to a slender, green, flexible, non-woody structure, then it is really a leaflet that is part of a compound leaf.


How To Identify An Unknown SouthernTree

Does the tree have opposite leaves?  Go here.

Does the tree have compound leaves?  Go here.

Does the tree have  toothless leaves?  Go here.

Does the tree have toothed leaves?  Go here.

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About Dan Williams

Forest manager & environmental educator with the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. I have spent 26 years interpreting forest research for non-scientists interested in learning more about the forests of the Southeastern United States.
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