Can you ID this for me?

May 23, 2024 · 3 minute read
Can you ID this for me?

When people hear that I’m an arborist, occasionally they’ll follow up with tree-related questions, sharing their favorite tree with me, or a picture along with “can you ID this for me?”. I absolutely love talking about trees with people, so I actively welcome it. Occasionally I will hear a tree mistaken for another. Today’s article is going to dive into a few common lookalikes and misnomer trees from around the Richmond area.



  • Both the Catalpa and Paulownia are known for their large, nearly heart-shaped leaves. Paulownia is unfortunately far more common, as it’s a rampant invasive species here. Catalpa is a native tree that I wish we saw more of! Paulownia has distinct clusters of purple flowers that bloom earlier in the spring than Catalpa, which tend to have a whiter flower.

Black Walnut/Ailanthus

  • Another native vs invasive. This mix up tends to occur when both trees are very young, when one of the main identifiers is the leaves. Both have compound leaves, with very similarly shaped leaflets. Upon closer inspection however, Ailanthus leaflets tend to be smooth along the edges save for a few teeth towards the end, while Walnuts are serrated the whole length of the leaflet.

Box Elder/Poison Ivy

  • Like Black Walnut and Ailanthus, this misidentification tends to happen when Box Elders are very young. We’ve all heard the phrase “leaves of three, let it be” in reference to poison ivy. A Box Elder sapling’s leaflets will also be arranged in a similar fashion. Major distinguishing features are that Box Elders will always be opposite branching, while Poison Ivy alternates. Also, Box Elder saplings tend to look more “woody” compared to Poison Ivy, which grows as a climbing vine.

Pin Oak/Willow Oak

  • I think this just comes down to local terminology, but I often (very often) hear Willow Oaks referred to as “Pin Oak”. From my understanding, Pin Oak is used to describe the leaves looking like “pins and needles.” There is, however, a distinctly different tree that grows in Richmond called a Pin Oak. Both Willow Oaks and Pin Oaks are part of the Red Oak group, but their leaves are far from similar. Willow Oak leaves are long and slender (think Willow tree), while Pin Oak leaves have lobes.


  • When Pear trees (namely Bradford and Callery Pears) begin blooming in early spring, they tend to line the sides of major roadways, creating swathes of white flowers. I often hear people mention how the Dogwoods and Cherries are beginning to bloom, when in fact they’re referring to the Pear trees.


Dawn Redwood/Bald Cypress

  • Last on the list, we have two of my favorite trees, period. Both the Dawn Redwood and the Bald Cypress are deciduous conifers- meaning they drop their needles in the fall. This is likely the reason many people refer to Dawn Redwoods as Bald Cypress. Some distinguishing characteristics between the two are: Dawn Redwoods have opposite branching, while Bald Cypress branches alternately. Bald Cypress trees produce “knees” at ground level- the little bits of woody growth seen protruding around the base of the tree. Finally, Dawn Redwoods have small depressions in the wood right below where the branches attach.

We are blessed to have such a diverse landscape of trees, shrubs, and plants here in Richmond. It can be tricky to keep track of every species that we encounter. Hopefully this article will help narrow some down. If you’ve ever come across a mystery tree, or you might have an idea but want confirmation, please give us a call. We’d love to help solve it!