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Guide to Common Tree Species of the BWCA
Last updated by Larix813 on 3/16/2019 11:11:25 PM

This page is dedicated to the common tree species one would encounter in a trip to the BWCA. It does not include small statured trees and shrubs at this time. The BWCA is a complex mosaic of forest cover types. The wilderness area is an ecosystem with a rich disturbance history from fire to wind storms, and even the remnants from historic logging and development. As one travels through the BWCA, the trees, perrenials, and even the wildlife directly reflect this ever changing ecosystem. A little bit about my background: I have been taking wilderness canoe trips since I was a little kid, and even was so lucky as to guide one summer. The BWCA is my favorite place in the whole wide world. I love the natural environment too with all my heart. I have always been fascinated by nature and the world around me. My favorite thing though has always been trees. So much so that I went to college for forestry. It's not uncommon (to the chagrin of my paddling partners) for me to take off into the forest after a cool tree I noticed. Thus I figured I would make a wiki page to help others to recognize common trees of the BWCA in hopes that it help them to appreciate one more piece of the puzzle that is the wonderful BWCA. Many of you who spend enough time in the woods know these already, but this little resource will help those who do not. This tool is call a dichotomous key. Follow the key below, answering the questions as you scroll. This should help you discover which species of tree you are looking at. If it does not, the tree has not been added to the Wiki yet. I will be adding smaller species as I get the chance, but it's impossible to include every shrub and understory tree. This key is designed for use during canoe season as the primary identification tool used is the leaves. Thanks, and good luck with your search.



Dichotomous Key to Common Tree Species of the BWCA

Question 1: What kind of leaves does your tree have?

1) Needles? Go to question 2.

2) Scales? Does your leaf look like pine needles, but with overlapping segments? You found a Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)! Go to species guide at the bottom.

3) Lobed? Does your leaf look like a hand with fingers coming off of it? Go to question 3

4) Serrated? Is your leaf nearly circular, but with a jagged edge? Go to question 4

5) Simple? Is your leaf nearly circular with smooth edges? Sorry, I haven't added any of this kind yet. It may be a Saskatoon (Serviceberry) or maybe a Willow species, but it could be something else all together. Either way, this key can't help you, but check with the DNR website or other online resources for further help.

6) Compound? Does your tree look like it has simple leaves, but they are arranged in rows (such as what is pictured?) Go to Question 7.

Question 2: Your tree has needles which means you likely found a Pine, Spruce, or Fir. There are also Yew in the BWCA, but they are small shrubs. If you are looking at a tree, it is one of the previous three mentioned. All Pines in the BWCA have needles that come in a cluster when they are pulled from the tree. How many needles does it have in a cluster? Remember to check multiple clusters, and keep an eye out for broken needles. Spruces and Firs will not be in a cluster, and the needles will be individually connected to the branch.

1) 5 needles to the cluster? You found an Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus.) Go to the species guide at the bottom.

2) 2 needles to the cluster? Go to Question 5

3) Needles connected individually with the branch? Go to Question 6

4) Needles in a cluster on a stalk? You found a Tamarack (Larix laricina.) Go to the species guide at the bottom.

Question 3: Your tree has lobed leaves. You found something kinda special for the BWCA. The tree you found is likely some species of Oak or Maple. Oak and Maple are both common in Southern Minnesota, but less so in the North. I can't cover all of the options here, but the Oaks and Maples you will encounter are few and far between or in areas where a microclimate exists. If you do not see your tree listed, it is likely something that hasn't been added yet.

1) At least 5 lobes, likely more, with pointed ends to the leaves? You have found a Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) or a Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis.) Northern Pin Oak will have deaper lobes that extend almost to the mid-vein of the leaf, Red Oak will be more full. Both are exceedingly rare in the BWCA right now, and I have only found them in a handfull of locations.  Many reports point to them becoming more common in the future, which is why they are included here. Go to the species guide at the bottom.

1) Does the leaf have lobes, but the lobes get smaller towards the end of the leaf (as pictured?) You found a Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa.) Go to the species guide at the bottom.

1) Is the leaf closer to round, with only 3 lobes? You found a Moose Maple (Acer spicatum.) Go to the species guide at the bottom.

Question 4: Your tree has serrated leaves. That means it is likely an Aspen species, Birch species, or Balasam Poplar. It could also be a Serviceberry, Alder, Willow, or something else all together. If it is a large tree, it is an Aspen, Birch, or Balsam Poplar.

1) Does the tree have white, pealing bark (or gold on a young tree?) You found a Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera.) Go to the species key below. If the bark is white, but is not pealing off in sheets, it is one of the Aspen species. Theoretically, there is also Yellow Birch in the BWCA, but it is incredibly rare. I have not seen it. Yellow Birch tends to need a much deeper soil than is available in most of the BWCA, but be aware that it could, in theory, exist.

2) The bark is some shade of white (possibly) and the leaves are nearly round with a serrated edge? It is either Bigtooth Aspen (Populos gradidentata) or Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides.) See the comparison below.

3) Bark is coarse or rough on a mature tree? Leaves look similar to Aspen but stretched or elongated? It may be a Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera.) They exist in the BWCA, but rarely in large numbers. They may sometimes be difficult to identify.

Question 5: If your tree has needles in a cluster of two, what length are the needles?

1) Greater than 2 inches in length? You found a Red Pine (Pinus resinosa.) Go to the species key below.

2) Less than 2 inches in length? You found a Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana.) Go to the species key below.

Question 6: Your tree has single needles. Do they roll in your fingers?

1) If the needles roll in your fingers, you found a Spruce. If the needles are close to an inch long, you found a White Spruce (Picea glauca.) If the needles are a half in or shorter, you found a Black Spruce (Piecea mariana.) In the picture below: White Spruce on top and Black Spruce on the bottom. Go to the species guide below.

2) If the needles are flat, you found a Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea.) Go to the species guide below.

Question 7: Your tree has compound leaves. What shapre are the leaves?

1) Are the leaflets oval shaped and look similar to the branch below? Your tree is an Ash. If the bark has a sort of "diamond" pattern, your tree is a Green Ash (Fraxinus pensylvanica), if the bark is nobby with sporatic smooth patches and the leaves are slightly longer than pictured, your tree is a Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra.) Neither species is abundant in the BWCA, but can be encountered.

2) Are the leaflets lobed? You found a Boxelder (Acer negundo.) These are very sporadic in the BWCA, but, again, may occasionally be encountered.


Species Guide

Balsam Fir
Boxelder (No extra page since I have only encountered this species once in the BWCA. Included for posterity.)
Moose Maple
Paper Birch
Green Ash
Black Ash
Red Oak
Northern Pin Oak
Bur Oak
White Spruce
Black Spruce
Jack Pine
White Pine
Red Pine

Balsam Poplar
Quaking Aspen
Bigtooth Aspen
Northern White Cedar


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