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Woodworkers are like the undertakers of the tree world. We dissect the living tissue and prepare it (some might say mummify it) for its trip to the afterlife as a highboy or napkin basket.

Personally, I’ve always been a bit embarrassed that I don’t know what the different species look like in the wild. And except for the species that thrive in this growing region, I couldn’t tell you where in North America certain species grow. Where does juniper thrive? Heck if I know.

I’ve resolved to become better acquainted with our woodland friends before I rend them limb from limb.

Recently, a reader who is a forester sent me a book and a couple links that were extremely helpful when identifying trees. “Trees of North America” (St. Martin’s Press) is a compact book that is easy to use. For every species, “Trees of North America” shows you on a map where it grows, explains a little bit about how to identify the tree in the wild and , most helpful , offers you color drawings of the tree, its bark, its leaves and fruit it might bear.

While you might think that photographs of the features of each species would be more useful, after using the book this week I prefer the drawings. A slightly stylized representation of the tree helps you focus on what is important in identifying it, instead of the background or other things that could be going on in the photo.

The book is also packed with details on how to identify the different shapes of leaves, the different textures of bark and the various ways that twigs grow.

All in all, “Trees of North America” covers more than 730 species and packs it all into 280 pages that are trimmed to 4-1/2″ x 7-1/2″, which makes it small enough to take on walks through the woods. It even includes an inch scale on the book’s final page that you can use to measure leaves as you are trying to identify them in the field (no need to bring your 12′ tape measure).

“Trees  of North America” is widely available from booksellers for $10 to $15.

A Couple Links
There also are some good Internet resources that go into far more detail on the North American species. United States’ Forest Service offers its “Silvics of North America” handbook free on the web. This web site offers exhaustive data (at least from a woodworker’s perspective) on each species and a map that shows its growing range, but it doesn’t offer photos or drawings to help you identify a species unknown to you.

If you have snipped a twig from a tree and want to try to identify it, try this dendrology site at Virginia Tech. The web site asks you a series of questions about your specimen, shows you photos, then tries to narrow down the exact species you have encountered. It’s a fun site.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 8 comments
  • Jason Barren

    FYI – There are many used copies of this on for $.01 + $3.99 shipping. I ordered one yesterday.

  • Dan Sayler

    to quote:
    >I prefer the drawings. A slightly stylized representation >of the tree helps you focus on what is important in >identifying it

    It also speaks volumes about the sensibilities of the illustrator and sounds like this is one has the sensibilities of a woodworker among his gifts ;-D

    Thanks for the heads up . . .

  • I love the smell of Juniper

  • bibliofile13

    To respond to Rob’s comment above, if Chris has the same book I have, then yes, it does include some regional and vernacular names, and does a better job with them than most tree books, I would say. However, no tree book can ever completely cover all a tree’s regional names, so it’s sure to have left out some popular names from your region.

  • bibliofile13

    I own several books on tree identification, and I have to agree with Chris that this is by far the most useful! It’s especially important for me because I’m a lumber scavenger–I tend to follow tree removal crews around to see what I can pick up for free. But I think that anyone who is at all interested in wood will eventually become interested in trees.

    I think that it really expands a woodworker’s mental world if he or she is familiar with trees in general–there are biological and environmental reasons, after all, that cypress is rot-resistant and that soft maple is softer than hard maple. Thanks, Chris, for pointing out this fascinating aspect of the craft.

  • Does the book by any chance include local names or vernacular? Where I’m at, there are several species of trees that seem to go by different names depending on who you talk to.

  • Chuck Beck

    Our local park has put plaques on many trees in its 40 or so acres. They list the common name along with the binomial nomenclature. It has been really helpful while I’m wandering around undressing trees in my head.

  • Bob Demers

    Sadly I fell in the same category, and has often whished I should learned more about our trees..

    Years ago, I came across the fascinating world of Dendrochronology and was blown away at all the information that could be extracted from a piece of wood, via its tree rings. I have never looked at a piece of wood the same way ever since 🙂



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