Anatomy of a Tree
Learn structure and function of tree parts. Trees are essential components of forests, but a forest is more than a collection of trees. This video set animates the flow of water and nutrients through a tree and describe how forests work, including the processes whereby forest ecosystems help recycle carbon and shelter and purify water.
Leaves carry out photosynthesis, making food for the tree and releasing oxygen into the air. The narrow needles of a Douglas Fir can expose as much as three acres of chlorophyll surface to the sun. The lobes, leaflets and jagged edges of many broad leaves help evaporate the water used in food-building, reduce wind resistance and even provide “drip tips” to shed rain that could decay the leaf. Learn more about Leaves
Branches and Twigs
Branches and twigs grow out of the tree trunk and serve as support structures for leaves, flowers and fruit. They also transport materials between the trunk and the leaves.
The trunk of a tree is made up of five different layers.
The outer bark is the tree's protection from the outside world. Continually renewed from within, it helps keep out moisture in the rain and prevents the tree from losing moisture when the air is dry. It insulates against cold and heat and wards off insects.
The inner bark, or “phloem,” is the pipeline through which food is passed to the rest of the tree. It lives for only a short time then dies and turns to cork to become part of the protective outer bark.
The cambium cell layer is the growing part of the trunk. It annually produces new bark and new wood in response to hormones that pass down through the phloem with food from the leaves. These hormones, called “auxins,” stimulate growth in cells. Auxins are produced by leaf buds at the ends of branches as they start growing in the spring.
Sapwood is the tree's pipeline for water moving up to the leaves. Sapwood is new wood. As newer rings of sapwood are laid down, inner cells lose their vitality and turn to heartwood.
Heartwood is the central, supporting pillar of the tree. Although dead, it will not decay or lose strength while the outer layers are intact. A composite of hollow, needlelike cellulose fibers bound together by a chemical glue called lignin, it is in many ways as strong as steel. Set vertically, a 1" x 2" cross section that is 12" long can support twenty tons!
Tree roots are typically found in the top three feet of the soil. They also expand well beyond the drip-line, often occupying an area two to four times the size of the tree crown.
A tree’s root system works to absorb water and minerals from the soil, anchor the tree to the ground, and store food reserves for the winter. It is made up of two kinds of roots: large perennial roots and smaller, short-lived feeder roots.
Watch this video about tree anatomy presented by the Harvard Museum of Natural History.