“Do you know what my tree is? It’s tall, with leaves shaped like fingers, except the ends are all pointy-like”.
I’ve heard this a hundred times with some slight variations, and most often the description leaves me without a clue. I don’t fault the questioner, I can barely describe how to get to my own house, so I ask the person to send me a photo. Sometimes the picture tells the story, and other times I still draw a blank.
This, of course, is why we depend on references, and for plant identification there are some good ones. Through the years I have depended on the line drawings of the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael Dirr, an invaluable reference with more information about woody trees and shrubs than most gardeners will ever require. Any gardener with an interest in trees and shrubs will find this book valuable, but it’s format is best suited as a reference and not to casual reading.
Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs has photographs rather than line drawings, and the book is better suited to the gardener looking to gain information to make choices for plants to add to the garden. There are no close up photos of leaves, so as a reference in plant identification this new edition is perhaps not as useful, but it contains an incredible amount of information, and it’s a great value.
Many times my first step in researching an identification question is to do a Google search, and if the topic doesn’t attract too many commercial sites I’ve found some excellent references. I’ve recently stumbled on an internet and smart phone tool to help with tree and shrub identification, along with a database of trees and shrubs of the northeast.
Leafsnap.com contains a database with excellent closeup photos of leaves, flowers, seeds, and bark, and basic plant characteristics. But, it’s primary usefulness is likely to be for owners of iPhones. A free app is available that will identify a single leaf that is photographed against a white background. For now, it’s only available for iPhone and iPad, but they’re working on an Android version, I hear.
I don’t have an iPhone, or even a smart phone, so I haven’t tested the app, but it seems to offer promising assistance in helping to identify common trees and shrubs.