How to Identify a Tree in Alberta: Tips & Tricks From An Arborist

September 18, 2022

Nature lovers rejoice! We’re coming at you with a complete guide to how to identify a tree in Alberta.

With about 180 tree species in Canada, 28 of which are found in Alberta, and over 318 billion individual trees, our country knows dendrology

What’s even more impressive is that with close to 362 million hectares of woodland area, Canada is home to 10% of the world’s forests

How to identify a tree: Start by learning the 2 main types

leaves covered in snow
Photo by Sorina Bindea on Unsplash

Trees, whether they’re in Alberta or anywhere else in Canada, are divided into two broad categories:

  1. Deciduous: Also called broadleaf or hardwood trees, most deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall.
  2. Conifers: Also known as evergreens, softwoods, or needle-leaved trees (with some exceptions), most coniferous trees keep their needles year-round.

Now that we’ve defined tree types, let’s cover how to identify a tree starting from these two broad categories. Our team of professional arborists have put together expert tips and tricks for tree recognition that you can use year-round. 

A quick guide for how to identify common tree species in Alberta  

Pine needles

What if you’re an Albertan who can’t identify a tree? Not to worry. There’s a quick way to do it. 

Use the Guide to the Common Native Trees and Shrubs of Alberta key to help you quickly master the art of identifying trees:

  • Leaf type:
    • Broadleaf (deciduous trees),
      • Leaf arrangement:
        • Simple: one main leaf per stem.
        • Compound: many small leaves (called leaflets) per stem. 
An example of a simple leaf arrangement

Photo by Michael & Diane Weidner on Unsplash
An example of a compound leaf arrangement

Photo by Olli Kilpi on Unsplash 
  • Leaf pattern:
    • Opposite: Leaves are attached opposite each other along a stem.
    • Alternate: Leaflets are attached alternately to one another along the stem.
An example of an opposite leaf pattern
Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@tomas_nz?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText" data-srcset=Tomas Sobek on Unsplash “>
Photo by Tomas Sobek on Unsplash
An example of an alternate leaf pattern

Photo by Joe Dudeck on Unsplash
  • Needle (coniferous trees)
    • Needle arrangement:
      • Sheathed Needles: Two needles attach together at the same point on the stem.
      • Unsheathed Needles: One needle attaches on its own on the stem. 
An example of sheathed needles

Photo by Olga Vilkha on Unsplash
An example of unsheathed needles 

Photo by Roberto Sorin on Unsplash

If you follow this simple key, you’ll find yourself much, much closer to being able to name the trees you’re looking at. 

The 20 Most Common Alberta Trees

Common Alberta Trees
Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

You’re now well on your way to becoming an Alberta tree identification guru. Time to get to know the names of trees found in your province. Here’s a sampling: 

Deciduous Species

  1. Columnar or Shade:
    • Birch
    • Columnar Aspen
    • Elm
    • Green Ash
    • Linden
    • Northwest Poplar
    • Oak
    • Trembling Aspen
    • Willow
  1. Fruits or Flowering:
    • American Mountain Ash
    • Crabapple
    • Hawthorn
    • Mayday
    • Schubert Chokecherry
    • Tree Lilac
    • Ussurian Pear

Coniferous Species

  1. Colorado Spruce
  2. Norway Spruce
  3. Siberian Larch
  4. White Spruce

We also wrote another blog about common Alberta tree species a few years back. The information still applies. Have a read here

9 of the best tree identification guides

Tree branch covered in snow
Photo by Ryan Levy on Unsplash

If you’re the type that likes to kick it old school, then a physical guide is for you. 

With dozens of options of guides, some of which are hardcover books the size of a phonebook, we’ve narrowed down the list for you to 9 of the best paperbacks: 

  1. National Geographic Pocket Guide to Trees and Shrubs of North America by Bland Crowder
  2. National Audubon Society Trees of North America
  3. The Sibley Guide to Trees
  4. A Peterson Field Guide To Western Trees
  5. What’s that Tree? A Beginner’s Guide by DK
  6. Trees of Western North America 
  7. Trees and Shrubs of Alberta by Lone Pine
  8. Trees and Shrubs of Alberta by Kathleen Wilkinson
  9. Plants Of The Western Forest: Alberta, Saskatchewan And Manitoba Boreal And Aspen Parkland

Or, you can save trees and choose a tree ID app instead. We’ll leaf through these options next.

Easy tree identification: There’s an app for that

A woman identifying a tree with a phone app

Say goodbye to telephone book-sized plant identification guides. Now you can get the same amount of information in the form of a tiny app. 

In the age of smartphones, a germinating arborist can have the power of plant recognition at their fingertips. (Or, is it at their thumbs?)

Stop carrying around heavy field guides and start downloading digital tree field guides. 

Next up: we’ll share a list of tree ID apps to get you started. 

The 10 best apps for identifying trees

A couple checking their phone

Here are 10 of our favourite tree identification apps. Most come in a basic free version and a more extensive paid version. All are available to download  from the Apple and/or Google app stores.

  1. Deciduous Trees 2.0 
  2. Identitree Starter Kit
  3. iNaturalist (& Seek by iNaturalist) for Android/iOS
  4. LeafSnap-Plant IdentificationAndroid/iOS
  5. MyTree App
  6. My Tree ID by Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS)
  7. NatureID
  8. PictureThis
  9. PlantNet Plant Identification for ​​Android/iOS
  10. vTree Virginia Tech Tree ID by Virginia Tech Dendrology

What if you’re not interested in rifling through an app to figure out what plant you’re looking at, why not get your phone to do it for you? Find out what we mean next.

How to identify a tree with a photo

Photo identification is another option for tree lovers. It works like Shazam for photos. The principle is simple:

  1. Snap a picture with your phone of a tree you want to ID,
  2. Upload the pic to a photo ID site, 
  3. Click identify, and
  4. Wait for your answer to arrive!

If you’re wondering where to get started with photo recognition software, here are two options:

  • Google Lens: Technically an app, Google Lens lets users use their desktop smartphone camera or an existing image to search for what they want.
    • Snap a photo of a tree you’d like to ID and—Bam!—Lens will tell you what it is.
    • Lens is available on all devices, by typing google.ca in your website browser, and in your favourite apps.
  • Pl@ntNet: This is a website that works in a similar way to Lens. The big difference: it’s plant-specific and covers more than trees. 

If you’re a tech nerd who doesn’t want to go the retro field book route but wants to do more than use click-n-name photo identification, we recommend using an online interactive key. 

Read on to discover our list of favourites.

How to identify a tree using an interactive online field guide

A woman sitting under a tree

Somewhere between paperback field guides, apps, and photo identification tools are online field guides. These interactive tree identification keys are step-by-step tools you can use to ID plants. 

A few examples include:

What if you’re out in the wild without your field guide, manual, or phone? Gasp! Or, what if you’re the type who wants to learn how to ID trees using simple tips all year long? 

We can help there, too. Keep reading for our seasonal tree ID’ing tips.

Tree identification tips for every season

Pine needles in fall
Photo by Jakub Sejkora on Unsplash

Budding horticultural experts can use the following seasonal-tips to name any tree no matter the weather.

Keep these main characteristics in mind when naming Alberta trees:

  • Type
  • Bark
  • Shape
  • Buds
  • Twigs
  • Flowers
  • Leaves
  • Fruit
  • Location & Distribution

Different characteristics will help you name trees during different seasons. 

We’ll begin with the trickiest season for plan identification: winter. 

1. Winter: All about the bark

Close up of a tree bark
Photo by Jake Green on Unsplash

The best way to identify Alberta trees in the winter is by 3 things:

1. Type

A quick way to narrow down which tree species you’re looking at in the wintertime is whether or not it’s missing leaves (deciduous) or whether it still has its needles* (coniferous).

*The one exception to this rule: the larch, a coniferous tree that is not an evergreen because it drops its needles in the fall. 

2. Bark

After Alberta broadleaf trees have dropped their leaves, the best way to identify them easily is by the colour and texture of their bark. Is it pale or dark? Furrowed or smooth? Papery or flaky?

What about colour? Is the bark:

  • Cinnamon, 
  • Copper 
  • Greenish-white (aspen)
  • Grey
  • Silver (beech) 
  • White (birch) 

3. Shape

Scan the trees in your neighbourhood and on your property and you’ll quickly be able to pick out distinct shapes

If a tree is conical, or shaped like an inverted cone, it’s most likely an evergreen. 

If the tree is a hardwood, look at the branches. Do the branches grow out from the trunk horizontally or more vertically? Does the overall shape bend gracefully upward, like a curved funnel, or does it appear more angular and thick throughout?

2. Spring: Buds and flowers for the win 

A new bud on a tree
Photo by Kevin Butz on Unsplash

In the spring, two these two details to give a name to Alberta tree species:

1. Buds

Buds are great details to help ID trees. They can be used throughout the winter and spring and look the same regardless of how old a tree is.

What is the shape, size, colour, and form of the buds? Are they scaly or smooth? Bare or covered in peach fuzz? Do you notice a larger bud at the end of the twig (terminal buds) or only buds along the twig (lateral buds)?

2. Twigs

Twigs can be used all year to ID trees as well. Take note of their texture (are they smooth or ribbed?), and whether or not they have hair or spines. 

3. Flowers

Alberta trees only bloom in the spring. Their flowers are a great help with tree identification because they vary so much in their colour, scent, arrangement, bloom timing, and reproductive structures.

What’s more:

  1. Broadleaf trees have flowers for reproduction, and
  2. Conifers generally have cones for reproduction. 

3. Summer: Leaves, please

Finally! It’s summer. Arguably the easiest season for ID’ing trees, novice horticulturalists can finally use leaves to help name their local trees. 

1. Leaves 

Here are the characteristics to look for when identifying broadleaf species via their leaves:

  • Shape. Common leaf shapes include:
    • Cordate (heart-shaped)
    • Deltoid (triangular)
    • Lanceolate (long and narrow)
    • Lobbed (oak)
    • Round (orbicular) 
    • Ovate (egg-shaped) 
    • Palm-shaped (maple)
  • Size. 

Similar species of trees may have the exact same shape of leaf but their size is different. 

2. Fruit

Similarly to flowers, the type of fruit a species has first depends on whether you’re looking at a deciduous or evergreen tree.

  • Deciduous:
    • Acorns (oak)
    • Catkins (willows)
    • Cones (alder)
    • Large fleshy fruits with seeds (e.g., crabapples, pears). 
    • Papery winged fruits of maple, 
    • Nuts (chestnut) 
  • Evergreen:

4. Fall: Colour me identified

Pine needles in Autumn

For our last season of the year, we bring in colour again as a tree identical tool. 

  1. Colour
    • From golden larch needles to vibrant orange ash leaves, fall gives a beautiful way to spot various trees.
  2. Timing of colour change
    • Ash trees tend to change colour later in the fall compared to, say, mayday species.
    • Keep in mind factors like moisture levels, latitude, and altitude also affect the timing of when leaves change colour. In drier years, leaves will turn faster compared to wetter years. 
  3. When leaves drop
    • As with when leaves change colour you can also identify Alberta trees from when leaves fall. Some species will drop theirs weeks before other species. 

How to Identify A Tree In Your Backyard: When You’re Stuck, Call The Experts

Magnolia Flowers
Photo by Amber Ford on Unsplash

We hope you’ve liked our arborist’s guide to how to identify a tree in Alberta. We hope you’ll feel more confident in your tree ID skills the next time you head out on a walk, on a hike, or even into your backyard. 

At Pevach, we love trees. We also love sharing what we know about them with you!

Do you have a tree on your property that you can’t identify? Call us—we’ll come have a look, ID it, and teach you how to properly care for it. If the tree is a possible hazard to you, your family, or your property, we can help there, too, by removing it.

For a free on-site consultation, or to book tree removal, tree pruning, or any other type of tree care service, contact us.

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