While it’s often easiest to identify a shrub when it is in flower or bearing fruit, that’s only the case for part of the year. A more reliable identifying characteristic is the shrub’s leaves. Leaves are either simple or compound. Simple leaves are not divided in any way, like an aspen leaf. Compound leaves are divided into leaflets or needles, like juniper or ivy.
The other main characteristic is whether the leaves are opposite or alternately placed on the stem or branch. Opposite leaves are attached in pairs opposite each other, while alternate leaves are attaching singly at alternating sides or in a spiral.
The final easy leaf identification guideline is to note the type of leaf. It may be broad, narrow, or needle. Shape is a better indicator than size, since individual shrubs can vary in leaf size. There are three basic leaf shapes, excluding those of conifers: lobed, smooth, and toothed. Lobed leaves have curvy or forked edges, such as oak leaves, while toothed leaves have many small teeth along the edges. Smooth leaves, naturally, have smooth edges.
Shrub Flowers & Fruits
Identifying shrubs is easy in the spring, when those that produce flowers do so. Color, shape, and scent of blossoms can tell you a lot about what kind of shrub it is. The time of spring in which it blooms is also important. Some are very early-blooming, while others don’t blossom till late spring. Consult a local cold hardiness zone map to find out when certain shrubs can be expected to bloom in your area.
Note the size of flowers; large and showy blooms can be distinguished from close cousins that produce only small flower clusters. Fruits have as many defining attributes as flowers do: observe whether the skin of berries or fruits is hard or soft, whether there is fuzz on the fruits, whether they have nuts or seeds, and their color, size and shape.
In the winter, you may have no leaves, flowers or fruits to consult in your shrub identification. You can still tell where leaves were placed on twigs or stems, by examining the branches for leaf scars and buds. Some shrubs will have buds at the end of each twig, called a terminal bud, while others do not, only having axillary buds along the stem instead.
Examine the color and texture of stems, as well. Rough or smooth bark might eliminate a possible identification, as could whether the buds are gray or red. Thorns or hairs on shrub stems also vary widely and can help identify a plant. They can be small or large, narrow or hooked, opposite or alternate.
Want to learn more about identifying shrubs?
Check out these Web sites chosen by us for more information on the subject.
The University of Wisconsin at Green Bay provides a tree and shrub introduction.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has a PDF Trees and Shrubs Pocket Identification Guide.