How to Identify Wisconsin Trees Without a College Degree

Step one to becoming a citizen forester is knowing what the trees are called.

There are more trees in Wisconsin, 11.5 billion, than people in the entire world, according to a 2017 estimate by the U.S. Forest Service, which didn’t even count the saplings less than an inch in diameter. The most common forests, it says, are a mixture of sugar maple (the state tree), beech and yellow beech; stands of Aspen; and groups of red oak, white oak, and hickory.

A venerable booklet produced by the DNR since 1928, Forest Trees of Wisconsin: How to Know Them, would like to introduce you to another 50-or-so characters, such as the paper birch, black spruce, callery pear and chokecherry. Even if you don’t know the Latin names, these are our very useful friends, the natural resources agency says, and they should be treated as such. In the 1928 forward, Filibert Roth said of the tree-sensitive citizen, “Here is a man who does not merely destroy the woods nor contents himself with cutting down whatever he can sell, but one who cares for the woods as well as uses them, one who sows as well as harvests. He is a forester.”

Step one to becoming a citizen forester is knowing what the trees are called, and this is more relevant than ever as fall colors emerge around the state, per Travel Wisconsin’s Doppler-like Fall Color Report. A typical pattern is predicted for this year, peaking in northern Wisconsin in early October and southern Wisconsin in late October, right in time for Halloween.

Excellent local-ish locations for tree-looking include Havenwoods State Forest on the North Side (see below), Lake Park, the Milwaukee County Grounds, Grant Park and Sheridan Park. Plus there’s always the two Kettle Morraine areas: Lapham Peak and Aztalan State Park.

At Havenwoods, we selected three well-lit trees at random and identified them using Forest Trees of Wisconsin, UW-Green Bay’s handy collection of images and our own resolve. The trees tended to be younger and in more open areas, resulting in more spread-out crowns (green branches).

Take a Look at Our First Tree

The first case (center left) is a 20-plus-foot deciduous broadleaf with simple leaves. (Compound leaves come arranged like little subdivisions of leaves with one stem leading in.) The below stems lead to just one.

Now Examine the Stems

The twigs alternate on either side of the branch, and the heavily serrated edge appears to be a double-toothed pattern. The small branches and twigs have a reddish color, another important clue. We need all the data we can get. Many Wisconsin trees have leaves of this rough shape, but the teeth are distinctive. On to the bark!

On to the Bark!

Chunky and peeling but not papery. The leaves suggest a beech but the bark squelches that idea and helps us narrow the search to an ironwood tree, Ostraya virginiana, which can be found throughout the state. According to Forest Trees of Wisconsin, the lumber is, “Very strong … used for fence posts, handles of tools, mallets and other small articles and fuel.”

Here’s Tree No. 2

The next tree grows in an open field. It’s a broadleaf that has lived its life in the open and avoided the race to the sky. 

Zoomin in on its Leaves

You don’t have to be a botanist to see these lobe-y leaves and say, oak! But which kind is it? The shapes are weirdly asymmetrical. You wouldn’t use them as the logo for your outdoor-related brand.

What About the Twigs? 

And the twigs grow in an opposing pattern, back-to-back. Plus, the coarseness of the bark extends onto the smaller branches. What can we read into the bark?

Does the Bark Offer More Clues? 

Those are deep, nasty fissures. So far, given rounded oak leaves, we’re looking at the white oak, the swamp white oak, and the bur oak. We can rule out the venerable white oak because its bark is “not deeply fissured,” the DNR says. Plenty of fissuring here. The swamp white oak matches pretty well except for one thing: the wacky leaves. All data points considered, this is a bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa, with excellent wood, just like the white oak.

How to Examine Needles

Lastly, a needled tree. Forest Trees of Wisconsin details 10 of them. There are 1.8 billion red pines in the state, but they’re most common in northern Wisconsin. Down here, who knows.

This medium-sized guy belongs to a small group of conifers and has longish, soft needles. Short, pokey spruces and firs are out as this point. We could be dealing with a tamarack, but the needles are way too long.

Nope, we’re looking at a red-or-white pine showdown.

Now Look at the Bark

And the bark is a little vague. Red and white pine barks share many colors, gray, red, sorta red, and brown, and the above has just enough of them to be confusing. While red pines have larger, redder scales, they emerge as the tree matures, and this one is still pretty young. We need to investigate the needles, which come in bundles of a few and are soft to the touch. Turns out, red pine needles grow long and brittle, in pairs! The needles are the key. It’s a white pine, folks.

To read Forest Trees of Wisconsin and print off the DNR’s quick guide to identifying trees, go here.

More Fall Guides

Photos courtesy of: Chris Kessler; Getty Images; Basse’s Farm; Carly Jo Hintz; Joseph Morales and Company; Marcus Center




Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.