Flowering trees add beauty to the landscape. Some provide fruit, and all provide homes for local wildlife. You might want to identify a flowering tree for many reasons--perhaps determining its suitability for your yard or because you want to better understand your local ecosystem--but identification begins with collecting information and using identification tools and resources to draw a conclusion.
People have been interested in identifying plants since they discovered that plants have uses for food, medicine and shelter. Flowering trees produce fruit that ranges from good to eat to toxic, and prehistoric people would have developed their own way of identifying trees to look for and trees to avoid. In this respect, modern society shares similar goals with ancient cultures. Even today, plant identification is often motivated by a desire to understand what you have so that you can assess its use or risk.
Luckily, identifying a flowering tree doesn't require expensive technology. A field guide, identification key or Internet connection are all that's required. Field guides provide pictures and descriptions of species, and your public library likely has several, including some specialized to your region. Identification keys, like the University of Michigan's Tree Identification Key, ask you to make successive choices based on the characteristics of your tree, narrowing it down to a single species. Internet resources from local extension offices, universities and nature enthusiasts help fill in the blanks.
Identifying a tree doesn't require a large set of knowledge so much as sharp observational abilities. As the University of Florida IFAS Extension points out, the more information you have, the easier identification will be. It recommends focusing on seven observable characteristics: range, habitat, bark, leaves, twigs, flowers and fruits and seeds.
Write notes, make sketches and take photographs to help you remember the details about the flowering tree you are trying to identify. When you pull out the field guide or load your local university's tree identification page, this information will help you remember the small details that often distinguish one species from another. Furthermore, as naturalist Jim Conrad points out, if you want to become better at identifying tree species, these notes will help you to detect patterns that allow you to better understand the tree's characteristics and the roles that different trees play in your local ecosystem.
After you've identified your tree, Michael G. Andreu, Erin M. Givens and Melissa H. Friedman of the University of Florida IFAS Extension recommend reading more about the tree and filling in details that you might have missed when making your observations. "This 'filling in what you missed' will help you learn more about the tree and become more familiar with the characteristics that can be used to identify this tree," they write on the extension's website. It can also help you learn to detect patterns that make future identifications easier.