Two Great Locations, One Organization
Sam Graham boulder
Matthaei trail map

Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.

By Rachael Kluba

For my internship this summer I am in charge of the Sam Graham Trees and Trail at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the many different plant species present along the trail boundaries. I maintain the existing plantings along the trail by ensuring they are properly cared for. I also work to increase the number of existing trees and shrubs and to remove as many of the invasives I can manage in my short time here this summer. For this reason I chose to do my project on learning how to identify woody plants and, more specifically, trees. Without formal training it can seem like a daunting task to identify a plant in the field without the assistance of a field guide such as Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of the Great Lakes Region by B. V. Barnes and W. H. Wagner, or Fruit Key and Twig Key To Trees & Shrubs by W. M. Harlow, both of which have been incredibly useful in my studies.1,2 Therefore, I hope I can create a system that I or anyone else can use to identify woody plants.

The first photo above left is the entrance to the Sam Graham Trail at the mesic grove location, where visitors can find native Michigan trees that thrive in soils of moderate moisture. The mesic grove is one of five zone types found within the trail’s boundaries. The second image is a trail map for Matthaei Botanical Gardens where the Sam Graham Trail is highlighted in red.

Learning how to identify woody plants can be a difficult process, but knowing the right steps to take when learning trees, shrubs, and other woody plants can make the process more efficient. Before going out into the field and observing the many different species the botanical gardens and Michigan have to offer I’ve found it is best to start with learning the names of the plants you hope to identify. This can be done by first learning the family name, then the genus and species names, and lastly the common name. An example is a ginkgo tree, which can be found on the botanical gardens property near Willow Pond. Some plants have easier nomenclature compared to others; however, taking the time to study the names of these plants before heading out into the field will make identification more rewarding when it is not necessary to flip through a book key.

Gingko family-genus-species chart
Gingko leaves
Maple-oak leaves

A ginkgo tree is in the family Ginkgoaceae, the genus Ginkgo, and the species Ginkgo biloba, with its distinctive fan-shaped leaves (pictured). A ginkgo is sometimes referred to by the common name of maidenhair tree. Of the Ginkgophyta division, this is the only remaining living species.3

Once an understanding is created based on the many names a plant can have, it is helpful to identify based on taxonomic groups. The ability to distinguish maples from oaks, pines, and others will help the field observer narrow down the identification process to fewer options in each cohort. There are a few ways this can be done through observing characteristics such as leaf, bark, twig, and/or bud variations. The best way to learn a plant is to absorb every aspect of it so that as seasons change and available identification cues disappear, you still have the skill to visualize what makes an oak different from an ash or any other group.

Leaf variation is one way to determine the differences between taxonomic groups especially in the warmer months. When leaves drop for the winter, however, bark is one of the best ways to identify trees. In the first image (above left) there is a maple leaf on the left and an oak leaf on the right while in the second image there are ten examples on trees based on the appearance of their bark.4,5

Tree bark samples

When identifying a plant it is best to first look at it as a whole by zeroing in on what special qualities make up that plant and what the key differences are between, for example, an ash and birch. Then, try focusing in on the few major key components that define a species. This can be how the bark appears flaky, chips off, or is completely smooth to the touch. It can be the way the leaves blow in the wind or the orientation of the leaf growth. Small details are sometimes the best way to identify a species. Some species share such strong similarities in their appearance that it can seem almost impossible to accurately identify the plant. However, determining the small details that make up a species such as the leaf orientation or bark formation can be the way to make an accurate identification. Find that single detail that stands out.

Leaf shapes

This illustration depicts the differences between a simple leaf, compound leaf, and doubly compound leaves.6

Drawing what you see can help create a visual understanding of what the plant looks like and appears to your interpretative way of seeing the world. This will also make it easier for you to come back to that plant later on and see how your initial insights may have been correct or changed through further studying of the plant.

Leaf drawing-1
Leaf drawing-2

A blog I found called Beneath the Carkeek Trees explains the importance of taking field sketches that allow you to later create more detailed drawings or try to recreate the plant from memory. Taking detailed notes not only allows you to study the plant but also to create your own ways to remember specific components while doing plant surveys. (Sketches above taken from the Carkeek blog.)7

Step by step guide to tree ID

The most important step when learning anything new is repetition. A continuous review of your notes and study names will allow you to learn the plants better than relying solely on an identification book every time you are out in the field. How you practice repetition is up to your study style. The many ways to learn through repetition include notecards, websites like Quizlet, repeated writing of the names, and many more options. These are the steps I’ll be following throughout my internship and I hope they can also be of use to others with an interest in developing and refining their plant identification skills.

Rachael Kluba is the Sam Graham Trees intern in the field services team at Matthaei-Nichols. She is from Brookfield, Illinois and is currently completing a master’s degree in conservation ecology from the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, while also having degrees in Geology and Environmental Science from Western Michigan University. She is most excited to learn about woody plants and gaining the ability to identify many of them throughout the summer, while understanding the importance of stewardship and restoration. Rachael’s internship was made possible by a gift from Don and Ingrid Graham and Chris and Elaine Graham to establish the Elizabeth Needham Graham Internship for the restoration and interpretation of native plant communities along the public trail system.

Rachael Kluba


  1. Barnes B.V. and W.H. Wagner. (2004). Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of the Great Lakes
  2. Harlow W.M. (1959). Fruit Key and Twig Key To Trees & Shrubs
  4. Quora:
  5. Know Your Trees:
  6. Leaf Structure and Function:
  7. Beneath the Carkeek Trees: