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How to Identify a Tree by its Bark

tree bark identification
Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / mucahityildiz

The winter season is ideal for identifying trees based on their bark alone. This guide will show you the surprising beauty of bark by shining a light on the basics of tree bark identification. Let’s dive in. 

What Is the Purpose of Bark?

The function of bark is to protect the tree.
The function of bark is to protect the tree. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Picography)

Many trees barks help trees survive in their natural habitat by protecting their trunks. Many trees have chemicals in their bark that repel fungus and insects. On the other hand, many of the deep cracks and fissures in the bark of other trees provide a safe haven for a variety of insects and spiders.

Tree bark adds to a forest’s biodiversity by providing food and shelter for a wide variety of organisms that coexist with the tree.  As a result, tree bark might rightly be considered one of the forest’s most profound materials.

Tree Bark Identification Tips

There are a myriad of tell-tale signs to aid in tree bark identification.
There are a myriad of tell-tale signs to aid in tree bark identification. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / 3938030)

There are many patterns, textures, and other qualities to look for in bark. To identify a tree by its bark, you’ll have to pay attention to detail. Slight variations in color and texture can be detected with careful observation.

The surface of the bark can be smooth, have deep ridges, or anything in between. Here are some factors to keep in mind the next time you’re out on a fact-finding stroll.

  • When a tree reaches a certain age, its bark begins to show indications of aging, which are more pronounced. In a way, it’s very much like our own skin.
  • It’s worth remembering that sometimes a difference in bark texture can be found at the base of the tree and at its crown.

There are lots of unique features that give you clues to determine exactly what species it is you’ve come across. As such, here are a few factors to consider that will help you with tree bark identification.

1. Unbroken, Silky-Smooth Bark

Smooth bark helps prevent insects from crawling up the trunk to reach the leaves,
Smooth bark helps prevent insects from crawling up the trunk to reach the leaves, (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / sandid)

The bark of young trees is frequently smooth and unbroken, but as the trees mature, the bark tends to become rougher, cracked, and coarser. Only a few regionally native trees, such as the American Beech and the Red Maple, maintain their smooth bark throughout their lifecycles, so its a dead giveaway for tree bark identification.

By retaining their smooth bark, trees can prevent unwanted climbing plants and insects from creating a home on them.

2. Tree Bark Identification: Lenticels Aplenty

The bark of a big tooth aspen's bark.
The bark of a big tooth aspen’s bark. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / BldrJanet)

Lenticels, or “breathing holes,” facilitate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and living cells of a tree’s bark. Every tree’s bark has lenticels, although some of them are more noticeable than others.

The lenticels of a tree have a characteristic form that might aid in tree bark identification. The pores on the bark of Cherry and Birch trees, for example, appear as horizontal lines. In contrast, some trees might have circular, oval, or diamond-shaped lenticels which can be found on the Big Tooth Aspen’s bark.

3. Horizontal Slivers of Bark (Peeling)

The river birch has a very distinct 'peeling' bark.
The river birch has a very distinct ‘peeling’ bark. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / jarmoluk)

You may observe from time to time that the bark of a tree is peeling. It is common for certain trees’ bark to be pushed outward by their developing wood since their wood develops at a quicker rate than their bark is able to.

The exterior cork of certain species breaks down and peels away under stress, although this isn’t always the case. Thin, peeling layers of bark are most common on the River Birch and the American Sycamore, two of the most prolific peeling tree species. Keep an eye out for layers of bark peeling away in horizontal, curling strips.

4. Furrows and Deep Cut Ridges.

The Northern Red Oak has ridges that travel vertically from the base to the crown of the tree.
The Northern Red Oak has ridges that travel vertically from the base to the crown of the tree. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Peggychoucair)

The most common characteristic of tree bark is ridges and furrows. A tree with rough bark will have ridges and furrows in its bark which can help you in your tree bark identification journey. These markings are due to rhytidomes, which are holes in the bark’s outer layers, which you can see.

These can be divided into sections by ridges and fissures of varying lengths and depths that run throughout the bark. Certain types of White Ash have ridges and furrows that fuse, for instance.

One exception is the Northern Red Oak which has entirely straight ridges that go up and down from the base to the top. Whereas the White Oak’s ridges are divided horizontally, as is its bark.

5. A Rainbow of Hues

Tree trunks can come in a whole variety of colors.
Tree trunks can come in a whole variety of colors. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / 27707)

Color, shades, and hues are all distinctive features in tree bark that are used to aid naturalists in tree bark identification. Chemical components in bark reflect and absorb specific wavelengths of light, resulting in hues ranging from white or silver to light gray to tones of orange or brown. The color of a tree naturally changes as its bark thickens.

Here are a few quick examples of the color schemes that you can expect from some incredibly North American tree species.

  • Oaks have a light gray bark, some oaks can have a reddish-brown color
  • Beech trees have a dark gray to black bark. Younger trees can even look silver.
  • Black Cherry and Black Walnut trees have a deep red-brown.
  • The Mulberry tree has bark that is similar in color to cinnamon.
  • Birch trees have a pure white color.
  • The Aspen tree has a greenish-white tinge to its bark.
  • Finally, the Paperbark Maple has strong copper color.

6. Broken into Scales or Plates

Some say the bark of the Evergreen Spruce looks like 'burnt potato chips'. What do you think?
Some say the bark of the Evergreen Spruce looks like ‘burnt potato chips’. What do you think? (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / fotoblend)

Some trees have rhytidome cracks that resemble plates or scales rather than ridges. Unlike other pine and spruce trees, the Black Birch has broad, uneven plates on its trunk.

Evergreen bark, such as Pine and Spruce, has broad, flat plates that are believed to resemble ‘burnt potato chips,’ but the bark of Flowers Dogwood and Persimmon trees crack into plates and scales that are thought to resemble alligator skin in appearance.

7. Distinctive Qualities and Traits

The honey locust tree is known for its distinct thorns that grow from its bark.
The honey locust tree is known for its distinct thorns that grow from its bark. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / SparrowsHome)

Besides the usual characteristics of ridges and lenticels, color, and peeling layers, certain tree species also have some unusual growths on their bark, such as fungi, or thorns.

For example, wild forms of the honey locust tree have massive, crimson thorns on the trunk and branches that are extremely painful to touch. The thorns are normally three-pronged in appearance, although they can have many more, particularly closer to the trunk. They have the appearance of spines and can grow to reach three inches in length, and make tree bark identification easy.

8. Follow Your Nose

The Ponderosa pine has a fragrant butterscotch and vanilla aroma.
The Ponderosa pine has a fragrant butterscotch and vanilla aroma. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / azboomer)

Another indispensable tip for tree bark identification is that it’s easier to identify trees with a sniff of their bark. You can even recognize certain trees in many National Parks by sniffing their bark.

Within a tree’s inner bark there lies a variety of fragrances to be perceived.

  • Ponderosa pine, for example, has butterscotch or vanilla-like fragrances.
  • The Sassafras, on the other hand, is reported to smell like root beer and has a cinnamon-like, spicy aroma.

Essential oils used to create the essence of these scents have been harvested and harnessed for human use in the form of food, cosmetics, and perfume for decades.

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