How to identify the most common trees in Michigan

Michigan is one of the best states for trees.

The state is home to one of the largest populations of sugar maple trees -- three times more than Vermont, the largest producer of maple syrup in the U.S.

Related: 11 invasive species to watch out for in Michigan

Several other types of trees are found around the state. To help you identify what you're looking at, we've created a tree guide with information from the Michigan DNR. 

Sugar maple

Sugar maple is a common species found throughout the entirety of Michigan, though it is not a generalist like the red maple. In northern hardwood forests, it is a dominant species because it is quite tolerant of shade. The common name stems from the sugar maple being used for maple syrup and sugar production.

Sugar maple has leaves that are usually 5-lobed. The lobes near the base of the leaf tend to be wider and more rounded in shape. The leaves are a dark yellowish green above and a lighter green color on the underside. The sugar maple’s leaves turn yellow, orange, or red in the fall.

Sugar maples have dark gray bark with furrowed ridges, not as easily identifiable compared to other Michigan tree species.

More on Sugar maples here from the Michigan DNR

Beech

In southern Michigan, American beech trees grow in beech-maple forests. Going north, they can be found in hemlock-northern hardwood forests. Michigan is the western edge of its range and it can be found in almost every county except for the western side of the Upper Peninsula. 

American beech is recognizable by its smooth grayish thin bark and often seen with writing on it. This can kill the tree because it stops nutrients and water from traveling through the trunk (girdling), so it is best to refrain from writing on this tree or any tree. Its leaves are oval, toothed at the edge, and come to a tip. Its leaves turn yellow and start to fall off making it a deciduous tree. Other ways to identify this tree when the leaves fall off are by its long pointed winter buds.

Read more on Beech trees here from the Michigan DNR.

Red maple

The red maple is an extremely common species found throughout all of Michigan. It is a very aggressive colonizing species and can be found in a wide range of forest types. The red maple is also a common ornamental tree, being used in landscaping and in urban areas, highly popular for its fall coloration.

The leaves of red maples are lobed with serrate leaf margins. The leaves are commonly seen with 3 lobes, but they can have up to 5. The leaves are a bright green on the upper side and a silvery-green on the underside.

Some trees have easily identifiable bark, but the red maple can be somewhat tricky to identify. The red maple’s bark is smooth, thin and light colored when young. Older trunks are rough-ridged and dark gray. A unique characteristic is a “bullseye” pattern that can sometimes be seen farther up their trunk.

The fruit of a red maple is called a samara, more commonly known as “helicopters” due to the swirling motion they make as they fall to the ground. The red maple’s samaras are small in size and the two wings form a narrow “v” shape.

Hemlock

Eastern hemlock is a coniferous tree in the pine family (Pinaceae). When mature, the trees are pyramidal in shape and can reach heights of up to 70 to 100 ft. They are often found in small groups on small hills or in ravines.

The needles on the Eastern hemlock are attached singly. They are flat and attached to a small “peg” on the stem. The undersides of the needles have 2 stomatal bands, which look like 2 “racing stripes”, going from the base of the needle to the tip of the needle.

Eastern hemlock’s bark is thick with a reddish-brown coloration. The ridges on the bark are scaly and flat-topped, forming plates.

Like all members of the pine family, the eastern hemlock has a seed cone. Compared to other seed cones from other species within the pine family, the cones on the hemlock are small in size. They are oval-shaped and the scales of the seed cone are smooth.

More on the Hemlock here from Michigan DNR.

White pine

Eastern white pine is Michigan’s State tree and can be found in almost every county of the Upper and Lower Peninsula. It typically grows in mixed forests and sandy plains.

White pine is a conifer; it keeps its needles all year long and produces cones. The easy way to identify a pine from any other conifer, such as spruce and hemlock, is by the needles. If they are in bundles or clumps called fascicles, it is a pine tree. If they have single needles, it is not.

White pine trees have five long needles in a bundle, while red and jack pines have two needles in each bundle. Another way to identify white pine is by its pine cones. White pines have long hard pine cones that are often curved. 

More on the White Pine here from the Michigan DNR.

Paper Birch

Paper birch can be found in almost every county of Michigan including the Lower and Upper Peninsula.  It is a species that grows best in full sunlight and near water. It is considered a pioneer species meaning it is typically found in disturbed areas and rarely seen in older forests. Paper birch can be seen in sandy, well drained areas such as river sides, urban areas, and road sides.

Leaves are oval shaped and come to a tip. The edges of the leaf are serrated or toothed as opposed to being smooth. Its leaves alternate on the stem. It is easily identified by its white paper like bark. Its leaves turn yellow and start to fall off in the fall making it a deciduous tree. In the spring time it produces long caterpillar like flowers or catkins that are pollinated by the wind.

More on Paper Birch trees from the Michigan DNR.

Eastern Cottonwood

The eastern cottonwood is a large tree that is characteristically found in floodplains, known for colonizing open areas. It does not tolerate cold temperatures and is not commonly found in Northern Michigan unless in areas where temperatures are more regulated by Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

The leaves of the eastern cottonwood are broad and slightly triangular in shape. The entire base of the leaves is coarsely toothed with 20-25 rounded teeth per side. The upper sides of the leaves are a dark green and the undersides are a bit paler. The leaves turn yellow in the fall.

The bark on mature cottonwoods has extremely thick, flat-topped furrowed ridges. It is an ashy gray color and, compared to some Michigan species, is easier to identify due to its blocky bark.

The cottonwood has caterpillar-like flowers, called catkins, which are wind pollinated. Their fruit is carried within the catkins, and the seeds are a white to light brown tuft of hairs, hence the “cotton” in the common name.

Red oak

You can find northern red oak in forests and backyards throughout Michigan. It prefers to grow in moist areas and is able to tolerate colder climates, which is why it can be found in both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas. It can also be found along the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

Northern red oak have lobed leaf margins, and the tips of the leaf are pointed. Look for pointed leaf tips to tell the difference between red and white oak species. 

The bark of a red oak looks as if someone went cross-country skiing on the bark. Look for “ski trails” that run up and down the trunk of the tree. 

Oak trees are “mast” trees, which mean they produce fruit – specifically acorns. Acorns are considered “hard mast”, because the outer shell is hard, with a seed enclosed inside. The acorns on a red oak have a saucer-shaped cup, which is the top of the acorn. The acorn itself is nearly round. 

White oak

The white oak is a common oak species found in both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas, though less frequently found in the Upper Peninsula.  It can grow on a variety of different soils, but does not grow well when those soils are poorly drained.

The leaf of a white oak has lobed leaf margins and the tips of the leaf are rounded. When comparing the white oak leaf to the red oak, it is easy to tell the difference because the red oak has pointed leaf tips.

The bark of a white oak is light gray in color. It typically is scaly or has thick ridges but can be quite variable between trees.

Check out more on White Oak trees here from the Michigan DNR.

Jack pine

Jack Pine is found in almost all of the Upper Peninsula and in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula. Among all Michigan tree species, the jack pine is uniquely adapted to exist and reproduce on the hottest and driest sites in Michigan.

It thrives on dune sand and on the sandy glacial plains, where it often occurs in dense stands. It is called a fire species because historically, wildfires swept through jack pine stands and prepared the ground for a new stand. The heat from the fire enabled the cones to release their seeds, which sprouted into the next generation of jack pines.

Jack pine is a conifer; it keeps its needles all year long and produces cones. The easy way to identify a pine from any other conifer, such as spruce and hemlock, is by the needles. If they are in bundles or clumps called fascicles, it is a pine tree.

If they have single needles, it is not. Jack pine trees have two long needles in a bundle, similarly to red pine, while white pine has five needles in each bundle. Jack pine needles are much shorter than red pine needles at a length of ¾ to 2” long. Another way to identify Jack Pine is by its cones. 

For more tree identification, check out the document below from MSU Extension:

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