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Hiking 101: Tree Identification (South Eastern Ontario)

Trees are incredible. They do way more than make the landscape beautiful. Among other things, they absorb deadly carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen and shade. They also help reduce soil erosion and give shelter to living things.

Here’s a quick recap from high school geography class – at least that’s when I first learned about Canada’s trees. There are two main types of trees (in Canada) – coniferous and deciduous. Coniferous trees are often referred to as evergreens. They have needles (such as firs, spruce and pine) or scale-like leaves (such as cedar) and pine cones. The main characteristic of an evergreen is that they keep their needles/leaves in the winter months. A larch is an example of a coniferous tree that loses its needles in the fall. Deciduous trees like maple, oak, poplar and birch lose their leaves in the fall to prepare themselves for winter. However, beech trees are known for keeping some of their leaves throughout the winter.

While it may be difficult to identity every type of tree in Ontario, it’s nice to be able to recognize some of the most common ones in our forests. Keep in mind that there are so many varieties of each type of tree, so one picture may just represent a broad category.

An excellent tree ID reference can be found on the Ontario government website:

Eastern hemlock

The most distinct feature of this tree are the soft flat rounded needles. The needles are shiny and are a medium green colour, while the underside is matte and lighter green. The needles are flexible and soft to the touch. The bark has a thick coarse texture that looks like the crusted top of freshly baked brownies. You can tell that I think about food while I’m hiking!

eastern hemlock
eastern hemlock

Red pine

The bark is smooth, yet flaky and has a tinge of red. Each cluster of needles has two needles. To see the branches on a mature tree – you’ll often have to look way up, as the tree can grow very tall.

red pine needles
red pine

Eastern white cedar

If you ever walk past a section of a forest filled with cedars, you’ll know. The smell from cedars is rich and delightful. The bark of a mature tree looks stringy and feels rough like sandpaper.

white cedar


Typically, you’ll find birch trees with a distinct white bark, but there are other varieties such as yellow birch (which at maturity, has a brownish colour). The bark has layers that looks like paper and most often you’ll see this tree “peeling”.

White pine

The “prickly” tree. The needles are usually long and grow directly out of the branch in clusters of 2 (red pine), 3 (yellow pine) and 5 (white pine). The Georgian Bay is famous for its leaning eastern white pines.

pine bark

Sugar maple

Canada’s iconic maple leaf belongs to the maple tree. Famous also for its sap which we make maple syrup from . Leaves usually turn yellow or orange in the fall.


Red maple

Leaves turn red in the fall. Like other maple trees, the seeds are inside “keys” (aka helicopters). In the spring they have beautiful unique red buds (pictured bottom right).

red maple flower

White spruce

The branches may look similar to hemlock, but the needles on the stems are short, stiff and pointy at the tip making them prickly. If you pick off a needle and try to bend it, it will crack easily. The needles grow singly out of pegs (vs. directly from the branches) and the stems are more flat than firs. The bark is crusted in a circular patch-like pattern.


American beech

In the winter months, you’ll be in awe when you see these orange/yellow leaves blowing in the breeze and glowing magically in the sunlight.

beech leaves

Balsam fir

O’ Christmas tree, O’ Christmas tree…

Firs are commonly used as Christmas trees because of their fullness. Their needles are flat and have blunt vs. pointy tips (spruce). Fir needles grow directly from the smallest branches and form a spiral at the tip of them. If you put your fingers around one of the stems it will feel like a cylinder shape.

Learn more about the differences among fir, spruce and pine trees:

balsam fir


Varieties include red (pictured here), black, white and bur. Oak leaves are unique and easily to identify. The leaves of a red oak are edgy , while white oak leaves are rounded. Even if you’ve never seen an oak tree before, you’ll know there’s one around because you’ll find acorns on the forest floor.

oak leaf

I absolutely love trees and spend a lot of time photographing them. I’ve been learning more about them while doing research for this post. Because I can now identify some trees – I see the forest in a whole new way. There are a few other trees that I see often, but don’t have any pictures of the leaves and the bark together. I’ll be updating this post when I do. As I am writing this post, it’s wintertime in Ontario and I can’t seem to get a photo of any leaves – other than beech leaves…

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