Identify Texas Trees – Leaf Identification
This Texas tree guide was created to provide a resource for anyone to learn how to identify common and more esoteric trees naturalized in Texas through descriptions and photographs. The Texas tree field guide will be ever-growing and will become even more useful as time goes on. Please contact us if you have any suggestions, additions, or photographs of Texas trees. If you want to learn to identify Texas trees, then this guide was made for you.
The American Elm tree species is identifiable by the smooth face and asymmetrical base of its leaves. They are much larger than those of the Cedar Elm and have a striking forest green color. The American Elm can grow very large, forming a fantastic shade tree to escape the heat of the Texas summer. The trunk has vertical strips of bark, giving a cracked appearance in larger trees. One of the most welcoming American Elms can be found near campsite #23 at Colorado Bend State Park in central Texas. Also, a line of Elms near Texas Tech Law School provides cover for a family of jackrabbits.
American Elm trees in Texas are less exposed to the dreaded Dutch Elm disease compared to other parts of the country, making it an ideal habitat. Native Americans made use of the tree’s toughness and resiliency, making cordage from its inner bark. Reference
The American Sycamore is recognizable in all four seasons by its mottled, whitewashed bark and the golf-ball-shaped seed formations that hang from its branches. Its leaves are similar to the Cottonwood, and the American Sycamore grows just as large or larger. The seed balls remain attached to the tree by tough rope-like fiber, but if you can pull one down and break it up, the seeds separate, revealing a rabbit-fur softness.
The American Sycamore’s bark gets its Cezanne-like appearance from the simple fact that the tree grows faster than the bark can expand, causing the bark to peel off in patches. Unfortunately, the American Sycamore’s rapid growth causes it to be more vulnerable to wind and storms. In 2007, a severe storm in central Texas felled several giant Sycamores on the state capitol grounds. Reference
The Bald Cypress tree loves creek beds and river banks. Its trunk widens at the base of the tree, often revealing an extensive exposed root system. The Bald Cypress has thin needle-shaped leaves, which are reddish when first growing in the spring before turning dark green. The leaves then turn brown before being shed in the fall. The Bald Cypress is one of the only trees in the world that can survive partially submerged in water, and its wood has been prized for this ability to withstand rot.
One of the largest Bald Cypress trees in Texas is named “Big Baldy” and can be found on the Rock Shelter Trail at McKinney Falls state park in Travis County. Many other equally impressive Bald Cypress trees can be found all along the riverbank at McKinney Falls. Also, the Bald Cypress is prominent at the Riverwalk in San Antonio.
The Berlandier ash (as well as other forms of ash) is identifiable by its unique seeds, called “keys,” and its diamond-shaped bark pattern. Its leaves are dark green, serrated, and opposite one another on the branch. The tree is named after botanist Jean Louis Berlandier (circa 1805-1851).
The Blackjack oak extends throughout the South, nearly to New England. It is slow-growing, and burns hot and long, making it a particular favorite for cooking Carolina pork barbeque. It is identified by its leaf shape, which is quite unique, although a malformed Post oak leaf may look similar. Look for Blackjack oaks away from water; they can be seen in Lost Maples State Natural Area for sure.
The Box Elder is not poison ivy! Although its leaves look very similar to poison ivy, the Box Elder’s leaves grow opposite each other and poison ivy leaves alternate. The Box Elder is a member of the maple family and its seeds take the form of “keys” similar to ash trees.
The Cedar elm is one of the most tattered, scruffy-looking Texas trees. Its common name comes from its Cedar-like (actually Juniper-like) rough bark. The leaves have the same asymmetrical base as the American elm, but are smaller and have a sandpaper texture. Regardless of its rough exterior, the Cedar elm is a nice tree, even as an ornamental.
The Chaste Tree’s palmate (hand-shaped) leaves resemble the cannabis plant, and its berries are highly aromatic. It is typically a small, scruffy-looking tree, but its leaves and smell make it quite pleasant to be around. The berries are edible and can be used as a spice in cooking.
The Chaste Tree gets its name from its ancient reputation as an anti-aphrodisiac. It is also called Monk’s Pepper because legend has it that Mediterranean monks used the tree in cooking to subdue their libidos. Furthermore, the Latin name “agnus castus” translates to “chaste lamb.” The Chaste Tree berries and leaves are also believed to aid in reproductive health, mitigating the effects of PMS and improving fertility. Clinical evidence supports these claims.
The Chinaberry has smooth bark and an interesting leaf pattern, called “odd bipinnately compound.” Its flexible, smooth branches can be used in home arts and crafts. Even though a member of the Mahogany family, the Chinaberry’s wood is weak and not suited for commercial purposes. Do not eat the berries of the Chinaberry, it is said that as few as six can kill a person. Even birds can eat too many and become temporarily paralyzed or die. It is a non-native tree and its poisonous qualities have caused some to consider it invasive.
Chinese Tallow Tree
The Chinese tallow is originally from Asia and has become naturalized in Texas. It is fast-growing and spreads easily, leading some to consider it an invasive species. Carmine Stahl and Ria McElvaney, the authors of Trees of Texas write, “Arguably, Chinese tallow represents the most troublesome tree ever introduced to Texas.”
The Chinese Tallow is a very aesthetically pleasing tree, with light green leaves that rustle in the wind. The seeds have a waxy coating, which can be boiled off and used to make candles or soap. In fact, the Chinese tallow was first introduced into the United States around 1900 in the context of a burgeoning candle industry; the candle industry, unlike the Chinese tallow, never caught on.
The Chinkapin Oak, sometimes spelled Chinquapin Oak, bears the species name of German-American botanist Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815). Its acorns are considered especially sweet and edible and were a staple of the Native American diet. The Chinkapin’s sawtooth leaves resemble other members of the Beech family, such as the Allegheny Chinquapin and American Beech, but can be easily distinguished by the fact that it produces acorns rather than chestnut-like fruit.
The Chinkapin Oak is relatively uncommon but can be found in Central Texas, particularly the Lost Maples State Natural Area. It is deciduous and a member of the White Oak group.
The Crapemyrtle, also known as the Lilac of the South, is perhaps the quintessential urban tree of central Texas. Its smooth peach-colored bark, characteristic dry-split seed capsules, and bright red or purple summer and fall flowers make the Crapemyrtle a quick tree to identify. In the winter it is often seen totally bare and cut way back by landscapers, and comes to full bloom in the early summer.
The Crapemyrtle is native to Asia, where it has been cultivated for centuries. It was brought to Europe by the Dutch East India Company in the mid-1700s and eventually to the United States around 1790 by French botanist Andre Michaux. The Crapemyrtle has not naturalized in Texas, meaning that each instance was deliberately planted by a person. As a result, the Crapemyrtle serves to indicate the locations of ancient homesteads or some form of human development.
The Desert Willow, also called Mimbre or Flowering Willow, is actually not a willow but a member of the Catalpa family (see Northern Catalpa). It exhibits beautiful trumpet-shaped purple leaves in the late spring and early summer, containing brown and yellow stripes on their interior meant to guide bees. Its leaves are elongated and the seeds are contained in long pods with feathered tips that appear in the summertime.
The Desert Willow’s lavender flowers are work well to attract bees because bees have a good ultra-violet vision in comparison to their comprehension of lower wavelengths. The alternate name, Mimbre, comes from the Mimbres Indians who lived in New Mexico from 750-1250AD, a place where the Desert Willow thrives. Its branches are also used for baskets in Mexico.
The Eastern Cottonwood is typically a very large tree, sometimes mistaken by amateurs with the American Sycamore due to its size. However, its leaves are round or heart-shaped and its trunk looks much different from the unique Sycamore bark. The Eastern Cottonwood is unmistakable when its seeds fall to the ground because they are enmeshed in hairy strands that look exactly like cotton.
The Eastern Redbud is one of the first tree species to bloom, displaying fuchsia flowers in early spring. Afterward, it can be identified by its smooth heart-shaped leaves and brownish pods which resemble snow peas in shape. The Redbud is native to central and eastern Texas, extending natively through most of the eastern United States into Canada.
The flower buds, flowers, and the pods of the Eastern Redbud are edible by humans. The flower buds can be sauteed in butter, flowers can be eaten raw (in salads, maybe), and the pods can be stir-fried like snow peas. The Eastern Redbud is sometimes referred to as “Judas Tree” because legend has it that Judas Iscariot hung himself from this species (or more likely the Mediterranean variety, Cercis Canadensis).
Golden Rain Tree
The Golden Rain Tree is one of the most beautiful trees of Texas, due to both its leaf and flower shapes. The leaves are serrated, but not uniformly, forming a great aesthetic pattern. The flowers look like yellow bells, hanging in clusters. In the fall, they turn a deep bronze color, some staying attached to the branches long after the leaves have fallen.
The Golden Rain Tree is often used as an ornamental, planted in yards and public areas in the Texas panhandle, up through Oklahoma, Kansas, and beyond. Inside the “bells” are a row of dark seeds that are said to be edible if roasted. The genus is named after Joseph Kohlreuter (1799-1806), a German natural historian.
The Gray oak is only native to far West Texas and can be found in abundance in the Guadalupe Mountains. It is often a small tree and has whorled gray leaves that are fuzzy on both sides. It bears small acorns, which are eaten by many animals and birds.
The Honey Mesquite is quintessentially Texan, especially West Texas. It often has a rugged, bent trunk, and does not grow very tall. Its soft leaves grow opposite each other along a forked stem. It bears seed pods that contain beans that are edible and were used by Native Americans and the Seri people of northern Mexico. Many ranchers have attempted to eradicate Mesquite with little success. Mesquite wood, which is very hard, is used in furniture and most notably to smoke barbeque.
The Japanese Ligustrum, also known as the Japanese Privet or Wax-leaf Privet, is a non-native species, often planted as an ornamental. It has dark-green waxy leaves with smooth edges. Its appearance is most unique in the winter when it displays dark blue fruits that hang in grape-like clusters. White flowers appear in the summer, helping to maintain year-round beauty for this tree.
The Ligustrum berries, although appealing in appearance, are quite poisonous and should never be consumed by humans. Birds, however, greatly enjoy the berries, spreading the tree to wooded areas and clearings. Unfortunately, this could cause problems where the Japanese Ligustrum displaces native species.
The live oak is perhaps the predominant tree of central Texas and can be found in most other regions of Texas as well. It is the state tree of Georgia, most notable for the large oak groves in and around Savannah. The live oak is an evergreen, with hardy, dark green leaves and small acorns. It is common to see ball moss or Spanish moss on its branches, neither of which is parasitic, contrary to popular belief. Instead, moss is an epiphyte, which means it attaches itself to the tree but does not take any nutrients from the tree itself.
Live oak wood is very hard, which explains the Live oak’s amazing ability to withstand severe winds and storms (unlike, for example, the American Sycamore). Also, the Live oak crown can spread as much as twice its height, making for an excellent shade and climbing tree. There are many very old and well known Live oaks in Texas and throughout the South. Three examples would be Treaty Oak in Austin, the Big Tree in Goose Island State Park in Rockport, and Angel Oak on Johns Island in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Loquat is an ornamental tree from China, despite its species name, japonica. It has large leaves that are glossy green on the top and have small red hairs covering the bottom. The Loquat stands out in any setting; its leaves look tropical and it bears yellow fruit in the late winter.
The Loquat fruits are edible when ripe, and are even a part of Middle Eastern cuisine. They also translate well into jelly or wine.
The Southern Magnolia is the state tree of Mississippi and a state flower of Louisiana (there are two). Even European planters have been attracted to its beauty. The Southern Magnolia is quintessentially southern: large in stature, with unmistakable large white flowers, shiny leathery leaves, and smooth bark. It is an odd mixture of gaudy and sophisticated.
The Southern Magnolia can reach great heights, with a wide crown, and many branches starting near the base of the tree. The base will be in almost total shade, and its frequent, smooth branches make this tree arguably the best for tree climbing. They can be a hassle for people who desire a well-kept yard; my grandmother hated always cleaning up the leathery leaves and hard pits of the flowers.
The Mexican Buckeye is easily identifiable by its unique seed pods, which consist of three compartments, each holding one hard seed. The seeds are poisonous to humans and can cause sickness if more than a couple are ingested, but they can be used as marbles or for a slingshot.
The Mexican Buckeye produces small purplish flowers and rarely grows larger than a large shrub. They are most commonly found in central and western Texas.
The Mexican oak is primarily found in northern Mexico and was first discovered in Big Bend National Park along the Texas-Mexico border. It does, however, extend farther north and can be found in the Guadalupe Mountains and elsewhere. It looks similar to the Shumard oak or Live oak but can be differentiated by its slightly toothed leaves.
The Mountain Mahogany lives in high elevations of West Texas and along the southern border with Mexico. It is actually not a member of the Mahogany family and is usually seen as a large shrub in the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Park. Native Americans brewed its leaves into a laxative tea and used its roots as a dye.
If you look closely at the little brown spheres on some oaks, you will see a small hole. This is because galls are the home to insects, usually a form of wasp. The insects inhabit these abnormal tree growths and organize their structure while living there. They eventually leave through the hole.
The Pecan is the state tree of Texas and the Pecan nut is the “state health nut” of Texas. Needless to say, it is Texan through and through and can be seen virtually everywhere. A member of the walnut family, the Pecan nut is oily, with a strong musty flavor most popular when sweetened in desserts. Like walnuts, the nutritional value of pecans is just now being fully understood; they are rich in omega-6 fatty acids which can improve cholesterol and heart health. Native Americans used pecans as a staple of their diet, and pecans continue today as one of the most commercially sold nuts.
Pecan leaves are long, slender, and serrated. They are slightly curved and dark green. The hard nutshells are enclosed in green fleshy pods that can be easily peeled away. Pecan bark is grayish and very rough, making the tree less than an ideal climbing tree. Pecan trees also often have catkins, which are green, furry, caterpillar shaped flowers that hang off the branches in clusters.
The Post oak is sometimes called Cross oak, due to its distinctive cross-shaped leaves. It is a very slow-growing tree, so large Post oaks have certainly been there for over one hundred years. Post oaks get their name from the traditional use of their wood for fence posts. Some very large Post oak trees can be found in the park behind Central Market on Lamar in Austin, Texas.
The Red Mulberry is identifiable by its small stature, large serrated leaves, and raspberry-shaped fruit. The leaves sometimes have an asymmetrical cutaway on one or both of their sides. Also, the leaves are delicately hairy on both sides.
The Red Mulberry bears the most enjoyably edible fruits of all Texas trees. When ripe they are very much like a raspberry, but slightly more bitter. They can be made into pie, cobbler, jelly, or simply eaten raw. I heard the best method for getting enough berries for a pie is to lay a blanket at the base of the tree and shake the trunk or branches. However, you’ll be lucky to get the good ones before the birds do.
If you wish to see the Redberry Juniper, visit Palo Duro State Park in Canyon, Texas. The name Palo Duro, meaning “hard stick,” is derived from the hardness of the Juniper trees found there, particularly the Ashe and Redberry. Not surprisingly, the Redberry Juniper derives its name from the color of its berries (which are actually cones), distinguishing it from other types of Juniper.
The Retama–also known as Parkinsonia, Jerusalem Thorn, and Palo Verde–is a drooping, fern-like tree with bright yellow flowers in the spring and summer. The Retama is native to south and western Texas but can be found almost anywhere, such as the Austin greenbelt.
The Scrub oak–also known as Sonoran Scrub oak, Encino, and Scrub Live oak–is a far West Texas evergreen tree with small acorns.
The Southern Waxmyrtle, also called the Southern Bayberry, can be identified by the conspicuous blueberries that cling to its branches until eaten by birds. It has greenish-brown leaves and often exists in the form of a small shrub.
The waxy coating of the Southern Waxmyrtle berry has been traditionally used for candle-making. The berries were boiled and the wax was skimmed from the top of the water, eventually getting enough to make the famous bayberry candle. The leaves are also aromatic and can be used in soups similar to the bay leaf.
The Sweetgum, sometimes called Gumball Tree, is identifiable by its pointed palmate leaves–resembling a star–and the spiked balls which hang from its branches. The Sweetgum turns beautiful colors in the fall, giving East Texas fall color and making for a pleasing ornamental. It gets its name from the historical use of its sap as chewing gum.
The Texas Madrone also called Lady’s Legs and Naked Indian can be easily identified by its peeling bark which reveals an array of vibrant colors, from tan to peach to red. Often used as an ornamental or landscape tree, the Texas Madrone can be found along the hiking trails of the Guadalupe Mountains or Big Bend, sometimes with initials and hearts carved into its trunk.
Texas Mountain Laurel
The Texas Mountain Laurel, also called the Mescal Bean Tree, is identifiable by its shiny, dark green, round leaves and its distinctive red seeds which are encompassed in furry brown pods. The red beans are poisonous to humans, and the Native Americans would ingest them for hallucinogenic effects. It is said that the Native Americans eventually preferred the effect of mescaline from the peyote cactus. This association of the Texas Mountain Laurel with the active hallucinogen in the peyote cactus explains the alternative name Mescal Bean Tree.
In the spring, the Texas Mountain Laurel exhibits beautiful blue-purple flowers that hang down like an upside-down bluebonnet flower. Once the beans harden they can be removed from their pods and rubbed against concrete until they get very hot from the friction.
The Texas oak – sometimes called the Texas Red oak, Spanish oak, or Buckley oak – is a beautiful deciduous oak. Its leaf shape is very different from the equally popular live oak, and its bark is much less rough than the live oak.
The Texas oak gets its scientific name from Samuel Botsford Buckley (1809-1884), former state geologist and co-founder of the Academy of Science of Texas. The acorns of the Texas oak are prized by squirrels who bury them for the winter, evidenced by the countless small Texas oak sprouts in the spring.
Hoptree, also known as wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata), is an attractive deciduous shrub or small tree. In Texas, German immigrants in the 19th century used hoptree seeds in place of hops for beer-making, leading to its common name. Wafer ash is found throughout Texas except in the extreme southern part.
The White oak is the state tree of both Connecticut and Maryland and is best identified by its large crown and lobed leaves. Other members of the White oak group look similar but can be differentiated by their acorns (e.g. the Bur oak). The White oak has smaller, typical oak acorns.
One of the most interesting uses of the White oak is in the process of making American whiskey. By definition, Kentucky bourbon is aged for at least two years in charred White oak barrels. Tennessee whiskey distillers use this same aging process.
The Yaupon Holly often appears as a large shrub, with small, serrated leaves and red berries for part of the year. It is one of the most interesting Texas trees because its leaves are the only source of caffeine native to the United States. Native Americans used to make a caffeinated drink from the Yaupon Holly leaves called “black drink” which could become so strong as to cause extreme nausea and vomiting, thus the scientific name ilex vomitoria. However, it is perfectly safe to make Yaupon Holly tea by drying and steeping the leaves in hot water; just don’t make it so strong that you will get sick.
Birds eat the red berries (which are not edible by humans) and deer enjoy the leaves. The Yaupon can often be seen as an urban landscape tree. It is easily distinguished from the American Holly by the rounded shape of its leaves.