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The Most Common North American Hardwood Trees

Common North American Broadleaf Trees and Their Habitat


Hardwood trees usually have broad, flat leaves as opposed to coniferous needled or scaled tree foliage. Another name for a hardwood tree is appropriately called a broadleaf.  You can easily identify a hardwood from a conifer.

Most, but not all, hardwoods are deciduous, perennial plants which are normally leafless for some time during the year. Notable exceptions are the evergreen magnolias and American holly trees which maintain leaves longer than a year.

Although these trees are often called hardwoods, wood hardness varies among the hardwood species. Some may actually be softer than many coniferous softwoods.

1. Alder, Red

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
Red alder is the largest native alder species in North America. It is also the most extensively utilized of the native species. Red alder trees invade clearings or burned-over areas and forms temporary forests. Over time, red alders build up the soil with their copious litter, and enriched it with nitrogen compounds formed by symbiotic bacteria that live in little nodules on their roots. Red alder stands are eventually succeeded by Douglas fir, western hemlock, and sitka spruce.

2. Ash, Green

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
Green ash is the most widely distributed of all the American ashes. Naturally a moist bottom land or stream bank tree, it is hardy to climatic extremes. The large seed crops provide food to many kinds of wildlife. Green ash is seriously threatened in some areas, particularly Michigan, by the emerald ash borer, a beetle introduced accidentally from Asia to which it has no natural resistance.

3. Ash, White

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
The name White ash derives from the blueish white undersides of the leaves. It is similar in appearance to the Green ash, making identification difficult. White ash is widely grown as an ornamental tree in North America. Cultivars selected for superior fall color include 'Autumn Applause' and 'Autumn Purple'.

4. Aspen, Quaking

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
The name quaking aspen references the quaking or trembling of the leaves that occurs in even a slight breeze due to the flattened petioles. Aspens do produce seeds, but seldom grow from them. Aspen propagates itself primarily through root sprouts, and extensive clonal colonies are common.

5. Beech, American

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
The American beech is a shade-tolerant species, favoring the shade more than other trees, and commonly found in forests in the final stage of succession called a climax forest. Although American beech wood is heavy, hard, tough and strong the tree is typically left during lumbering and often left uncut to grow. As a result, many areas today still have extensive groves of old beeches.

6. Basswood, American

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
American basswood is dominant in the sugar maple-basswood association, most common in western Wisconsin and central Minnesota, but occurs as far east as New England and southern Quebec where the soils are mesic with relatively high pH. Basswood is a prolific sprouter and forms clumps from stumps. Basswood flowers draw hordes of bees and other insects and has been called the "humming tree".

7. Birch, Paper

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
Paper birch is a pioneer species. It needs high nutrients and a lot of sun. The bark is highly weather-resistant. Often, the wood of a downed paper birch will rot away leaving the hollow bark intact. This easily recognized birch bark is a winter staple food for moose even-though the nutritional quality is poor. Still, the bark is important to wintering moose because of its sheer abundance.

8. Birch, River

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
While river birch's native habitat is wet ground, it will grow on higher land, and its bark is quite distinctive, making it a favored ornamental tree for landscape use. A number of cultivars have very attractive bark and selected for garden planting, including 'Heritage' and 'Dura Heat'. Native Americans used the wild birch's boiled sap as a sweetener similar to maple syrup, and the inner bark as a survival food. It is usually too contorted and knotty to be of value as a timber tree.

9. Birch, Yellow

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
The name "yellow birch" reflects the color of the tree's distinctive bark. Betula alleghaniensis is the provincial tree of Québec, where it is commonly called merisier, a name which in France is used for the wild cherry. Yellow birch thrives in moist woodlands and often seen on root stilts that have developed from seedlings that have grown on and over rotting stumps.

10. Boxelder Maple

R. Merrilees, Illustrator
The names "Box Elder" and "Boxelder Maple" are based upon the similarity of its whitish wood to that of boxwood and the similarity of its pinnately compound leaves with those of some species of elder. The less than "respectable" maple is not particularly desired in the landscape because of rapid trunk rotting, prolific sprouting and branch shedding. Still, it been planted in cities and on farms because of its rapid growth.
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