Tree identification has been a hobby of mine for over 20 years. There are multiple ways to identify trees — leaf shape, leaf color, bark color, bark texture, distinct buds, fruit, orientation of branches (opposite or alternate), tree form, tree location in the woods, and even TASTE.
The 7 species listed below are deciduous (loose their leaves in the winter) trees and one shrub that can be easily identified by smell:
Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera): this tree is in the magnolia family and actually the tallest tree in the magnolia family. A tulip poplar twig has a spicy smell like magnolia. The buds look like a duck’s bill.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): The twigs are usually greenish in color and the roots of this tree smell like root beer; but the stems have a spicy sweet smell.
Paw Paw (Asimina triloba): This tree is found in many of the wooded areas and parks in Richmond along the James River. Some say the leaves and twigs have the smell of diesel fuel.
Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima): This very invasive tree can be seen in almost every location and along almost every undisturbed road and highway in Virginia. The twigs are very stout with a distinct, strong odor which many say reminds them of peanut butter. The inside pith of the branch is a dark brown.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): This is the one shrub in the list that you will find along the river. Most of the year you can find a red fruit on this tree that, when crushed, reminds me of pepper. But the twigs also have a peppery, spicy smell.
Black cherry (Prunus serotina): The twigs of this tree have a slight smell of almond, which is actually cyanide. This tree can also easily be identified by the bark that looks like burnt corn flakes or a black knot disease on the branches and twigs of the tree.
Ginkgo fruit (Ginkgo biloba): While the twigs of this tree do not have a distinct smell, many times in the winter you will be standing there looking at this tree and notice a rancid smell around you like vomit or dog excrement. It’s actually the fruit that is all over the ground and on the bottom of your shoes.
Warning and Tree Care: First there are many trees that have a lot of poison ivy growing up the trunks here in Richmond. The poison ivy vine can grow off the trunk of a tree to look like a branch (know how to ID poison ivy). Lastly, we don’t want everyone out there on the trails or on street trees breaking off a lot of branches and limbs just to smell the tree. The technique I use is to take a branch (still on the tree) and use my finger nail to scratch the bark until you see the green on the limbs and SMELL (and taste!).