August 2014: Tree identification and selection

Cover of Best Trees for Your Garden, by Allen Paterson
Best Trees for Your Garden, by Allen Paterson

August 2014 library profile:

Tree identification and selection


"Without trees, a city is just a scab on the earth."

~Chuck Gilstrap



There are several ways one can go about identifying trees. Each type of tree has distinct characteristics in its leaves, bark, size, coloring, and behavior. Identifying trees can seem a daunting task for the beginner, but rest assured, the Sterling Morton Library and The Morton Arboretum can provide you with resources to achieve this task, from books and classes to web resources. The differing characteristics of trees also make different trees more suitable for different climates, soils, and settings, from an urban street planter to a sprawling garden. The Morton Arboretum's own Tree & Shrub Handbook gives guidance on selecting trees for different gardens and settings based on these characteristics and the intentions of the gardener with a large section devoted to plant selection, including recommended lists of large deciduous trees, small ornamental trees, deer-tolerant plants, salt-tolerant trees and shrubs, native trees for the home landscape, and even lists of invasive trees to avoid. For the gardener interested in identification as well, Michael A. Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, 6th edition revised 2009, gives the reader detailed drawings of different types of leaves, leaf arrangements, buds, and plant behavior that can aid in identification of species. In the rest of the book, Dirr gives specific details on size, leaves, texture, color, hardiness, habitat, landscape value, disease, and more on thousands of trees and shrubs for the landscape. For the gardener also looking for narrative, Allen Paterson gives flowing chapters on understanding and choosing trees for different landscapes in Best Trees for Your Garden, 2003. The previous Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden and Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario, Paterson gives combined European and North American perspective and examples, along with a bit of European landscaping history sprinkled throughout.



"Trees, then, are plants that develop one or more long-lived woody trunks to support a leafy canopy. Different conditions of climate, terrain and soil type have resulted in vast diversity of form. Tropical jungles are usually extremely species-rich; cool temperate mountainsides may be clothed by only two or three interacting species. But the point, of course, is the perfect adaptation to that environment of each, which makes the knowledge or origin so important if they are to be successfully grown in cultivation continents away from their homes... Some basic understanding of the workings of a tree leads directly to considerations of successful cultivation. Often some recommendations can seem arbitrary, while others seem to relate more to tradition than to current practice. It is helpful to keep in mind what is known about how trees, as living organisms, arrange their lives. Success depends more than anything upon choice of species, which is what at least half this book is about, but that decision made, relatively simple garden practice takes over. What this does in essence is to reflect what happens in nature."

~Best Trees for Your Garden p. 15-25


Classes and Plant Clinic Resources

Class: Tree ID and Ecology - Learn to identify the trees you see every day in the woodlands and neighborhoods of the Chicago region as you enjoy their brilliant fall colors.

Tree and plant descriptions - Use the choices from the right to narrow down the type of tree you are interested by climate zone, height, landscape use, and more.


Library resources

Tree Identification:

Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses, by Michael A. Dirr 2009 (6th ed.)

The Urban Tree Book, by Arthur Plotnik in Consultation with The Morton Arboretum 2000

The Book of Leaves: A Leaf-By-Leaf Guide to Six Hundred of the World's Great Trees, by Allen J. Coombes 2010

Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast, by Michael Wojtech 2011

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees, by David More 2013


Tree Selection:

Tree & Shrub Handbook, The Morton Arboretum 1999

Urban Trees: A Guide for Selection, Maintenance, and Master Planning, by Leonard E. Phillips, Jr. 1993

Native Trees for North American Landscapes, by Guy Sternberg with Jim Wilson 2004

Best Trees for Your Garden, by Allen Paterson 2003

Trees and Shrubs for Northern Gardens, by Dr. Leon C. Snyder and revised by Richard T. Isaacson 2000

The Year in Trees: Superb Woody Plants for Four-Season Gardens, by Kim E. Tripp and J.C. Raulston 1995


Reader's advisory

If interested in trees of different climates and environments, check out our collections on urban trees and tree ecology. If more interested in exploring what plants to choose for your garden, we also have collections on home landscaping and garden design.


Click here to see previous Monthly Library Profiles!