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Tree Seedling Identification

By Mara Grey ; Updated September 21, 2017
It's best to have six to eight true leaves before trying to identify a tree.
Grow your business image by Keith Frith from Fotolia.com

If you see a seedling in your garden that looks substantial enough to be a tree, you might wonder what it is and whether it would be worth transplanting. The problem with seedlings is that they lack flowers and fruit, the main features botanists used to classify plants. Close examination of trees around you will give you some good clues -- leaf and stem characteristics that can point you in the right direction.

Leaf Types

The first leaves any seed sends up are called cotyledons and they are different from the ordinary leaves in shape and size. Seedlings should be about 1 foot tall and have six to eight true leaves before you attempt identification. Note first whether your plant has needle-like leaves like a pine or broad leaves like a maple or holly. Needle-like leaves may be long or scale-like, each typical of a certain type of tree. If your seedling has broad leaves, notice whether they seem thin (probably deciduous), or thick and waxy (probably evergreen).

Leaf Shapes

Botanists have many terms for leaf shapes, from obovate, tear-drop shaped, to flabellate, fan-like. Notice both the shape and the texture of the leaves. Some have serrated edges, some have prominent veins, some have slightly hairy surfaces. Each of these characteristics is a hint at the identity of your seedling.

Leaf Attachment

One of the most important characteristics of leaves is the way they are arranged on a stem. Some are placed in twos, directly opposite each other. Other species may have four or five of them placed in a whorl around a single point on a branch. Others are arranged alternately. In looking at evergreens, count the needles that spring from a single point. Spruce have needles attached by short stems that give the older branches a rough texture. Yews have needles that are pressed against the stem for a short distance.

Stem and Bark Characteristics

The shape of a young stem or twig is often unique to a particular tree. Though the bark changes as it matures, features such as small dots or hairiness are diagnostic. Note also the shape of the dormant buds along the stem. Some trees have pointed buds, some are rounded, others are so small you can hardly see them.

Branching Pattern

Your seedling may be too small to have many branches, but if it does, whether the branches are alternate or opposite is important. Notice whether the young trunk is inclined to branch low or seems to have a strong main stem, a leader.


About the Author


Over the past 30 years, Mara Grey has sold plants in nurseries, designed gardens and volunteered as a Master Gardener. She is the author of "The Lazy Gardener" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Flower Gardening" and has a Bachelor of Science in botany.