Kathi excelled at teaching writing and natural sciences as a classroom teacher. Today, she combines her research, knowledge and photography!
What Is That Tree With the Vivid Fall Foliage?
Honestly, there is no best method when trying to identify tree species, but some methods are more reliable than others. I'm referring to the shapes of leaves, but it's always a good idea to cross-reference with other traits because even that can be tricky.
How to Identify Tree Species
Leaves: The shape of leaves is a more reliable identifier than the color or size of the leaves. The edges of the leaves—whether serrated or smooth—provide another solid clue, as do how they are attached to the branch (staggered alternately along the branch or paired opposite along the branch, making the shape of a cross or a plus sign).
- Opposites are maple and ash.
- Alternates are oak, hickory, yellow poplar, birch, beech, elm, cherry, and sycamore (a type of maple).
- Whorled (less common) leaf attachment is where three or more leaves attach at each point or node on the stem, typically pines.
Tree Size and Form: This can be tricky when trees are crowded in forest stands and forced to reach for the light. If the tree is allowed to grow in an open field or yard, it will be easier to identify, and size of the tree varies with age.
Bark: Usually, this is the second-best way to identify trees and the only way possible during winter months. When observing bark, experts rely on a combination of texture, pattern, and color to identify trees. This can be tricky and sometimes frustrating to the novice observer because the bark of many species look very similar while others have undeniably defining features.
Fruits and Buds: Yet another way to cross-reference when a particular tree's identity is in question. The only problem with this method is that the appearance of buds and/or fruit can be short-lived, and certain trees don't produce fruit every year. Also, many trees don't develop fruit (such as nuts and acorns) until the tree has reached a certain age of maturity, sometimes up to 25 years.
Flower: This is another way to cross-reference a tree's identity, but again, the flowering season is short-lived.
13 Michigan Trees With Fall Colors
Below, you will find information to help you identify these thirteen different trees that put on great shows of color during autumn in Michigan.
- Sugar Maple
- Red Maple
- Silver Maple
- Black Oak
- Northern Red Oak
- Poplar or Eastern Cottonwood
- Quaking Aspen
- Paper Birch
- Yellow Tulip Poplar
- White Ash
- Black Cherry
- American Beech
The discussion of each tree in this article includes a map showing where it grows. Click the thumbnail to view the map.
1. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
Sugar Maple Leaves
- Shape: 5 main lobes possessing pointed tips, sometimes 3-lobed; the classic Canadian-maple-leaf shape
- Edges: Smooth
- Sinuses: Leaf sinuses where lobes meet are rounded and broad
Note: At first, I believed the Sugar Maple leaves shown above came from two separate species. This is a good example of the variations in leaf shapes among species which can fool the most discerning observer.
Sugar Maple Tree Size and Form
This is a large tree reaching up to 100 feet (30 m). Open-grown trees form stout, upright branches near the ground; in forest stands, the trunk is relatively straight and free of branches for many feet off the ground, with a broad, round-topped crown.
Sugar Maple Leaves Autumn Colors
The photo above shows Sugar Maple autumn leaves that dropped from the same tree to the ground (where I was delighted to find them).
Sugar Maple Tree Bark
Sugar Maple bark textures are quite variable and show deeper furrows with age. The oldest trees exhibit flake-like plates that are difficult to peel off, while younger trees possess fairly smooth bark. The colors of the bark can also vary, appearing greenish-gray to gray when younger, or silver-gray in older trees.
More Info About Sugar Maple Trees
- Sugar Maples are the most dominant species in Michigan as well as in several other northern states, partly because they are shade-tolerant.
- Michigan is the number-one U.S. producer of maple syrup derived from the sap of the Sugar Maple.
2. Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Red Maple Leaves
- Shape: 3 to 5 main lobes with pointed tips
- Edges: Double-serrated and finely toothed
- Sinuses: Shallow, sharply angled where the lobes meet
Red Maple Tree Size and Form
Medium-size examples grow up to 70 feet (21 m). The trunk is often free of branches for half its length in forest stands. Upright branches form a low, dense, rather narrow, and rounded crown.
Red Maple Tree Autumn Colors
Red Maple trees' autumn leaves can vary from yellow to orange to deep red.
Red Maple Tree Spring Flower
You would think the Red Maple was named for its seasonal red leaf color, but instead, it was named for its flower's color. As spring unfolds, the deep red blooms of the Red Maple cover the tree, then drop to the ground, sprinkling city streets and lawns with red.
Red Maple Tree Seed Fruit
The seed fruit of the Red Maple tree (which many people call "helicopters"), has a characteristic horseshoe shape identical to other maple tree varieties, including Sugar Maples and Silver Maples. If you spot a tree with helicopters shaped more like clothes hangers, you probably have come across the invasive burgundy-colored Norway Maple tree, which has overtaken many areas where Sugar Maples once thrived.
Note: Sugar maple is the only native maple tree to seed in late summer and fall—all others seed during spring.
Red Maple Tree Bark
The patterns and colors of the Red Maple bark can be quite variable, as with all maples. Young Red Maple tree bark is rather thin and smooth, with varying colors, greenish-gray to gray. In the photo above, the middle-tree trunk shows gill-like patterns, a tell-tale sign it's Red Maple, but not all Red Maple trees will display those markings. The more mature the tree, the deeper the furrows and grooves in the bark, and the easier to pull off flakes. Another giveaway for Red Maples is the bullseye bark pattern—as seen in the oldest sample above—which Sugar Maples don't exhibit. Typically, mature Red Maple bark is brownish-gray to silver-gray.
3. Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)
Silver Maple Leaves
- Shape: 5 main lobes with pointed tips
- Edges: Smooth sections between numerous serrations; more coarse than the Red Maple
- Sinuses: Sharply angled where the lobes meet, extending deeper past mid-leaf than the Red Maple or Sugar Maple
- Other: The underside of the leaf is whitish, silvery green and is quite pale in comparison to the frontside; these leaves are very noticeable on the tree during windy days when they flip and flicker between dark and light green.
Silver Maple Tree Size and Form
The Silver Maple tree is large, growing up 80 feet (24 m) high. The trunk sometimes separates near the ground into three to four upright stems which are branch-free for a considerable distance; long, slender branches bend downward, but with their tips ascending in a graceful curve. When unobstructed, the crown is wide-spreading and broad.