Tree Stem Vs. Tree Branches: Pictures, Charts, How To Identify Parts of a Tree

Man pointing to a drawing of a tree stem vs tree branches showing the differences in parts of a tree and how to identify tree parts, trunk anatomy, function of the stem, types of stem, and multi-stemed trees.

It may be hard for you to believe, but if you own a residential or business property, then you should know the difference between a tree stem and a tree branch.

Not just for educational purposes but for the sake of your peace of mind, property safety, and perhaps even saving money.

This comprehensive guide explains the differences between a tree stem and tree branches, their functions, and how to identify various part of a tree.

It also includes some really cool examples of trees with interesting and strange stems and branches.

What Are the Parts of a Tree?

The basic anatomical component of the tree is the central tree stem, also known as the trunk, roots, branches, leaves bark, and crown.

There are numerous parts of a tree, but this is what you need to know for this guide.

Tree anatomy graphics showing the roots and a break down of the different parts of a tree in the crown and trunk.

Although there is much more scientific terminology to comprehensively consider when it comes to the anatomy of a tree, these terms are all you’ll need to remember in this guide.

Tree Stem: What Is a Tree?

There is no singular scientific or botanical classification or identification to define exactly what a tree is. Scientifically and technically speaking, there is no real difference between a plant, tree, vine, or shrub aside from certain aesthetics, size, and dimensions.

A tree is more of a botanical structure definition and an umbrella term for specific kinds of plants than a scientific term.15 A tree is a plant that grows vertically up to 13 feet at the minimum, although some botanical experts believe that the minimum height to define a tree is at least 15 feet.

Most trees have one or even several trunks or tree stems. Trees, which are living organisms, have wood-based anatomy and physiology.

The main organ of the tree is the tree stem or the trunk, which is the vertically elongated central stem of the tree itself.

The central tree stem creates woody vascular tissue, supports the entire structure of the tree, facilitates the outward growth of limbs and branches, and transports water and nutrients from the soil and roots to the rest of the tree structure.

Additionally, trees are usually perennials, they will stand vertically all year long, even if their leaves die and fall off.

Some trees, like Sequoias, can grow hundreds of feet tall and scores of feet wide and can resemble woody skyscrapers.

Sequoia trees are planted beside a road, showing their gigantic tree trunks compared to a car passing by.

(Image: Brigitte Werner16)

Tree branches are large and smaller, thinner limbs that grow out from the central tree stem. Tree branches and leaves absorb water, photosynthesize sunlight into food, sugars, and organic nutrients, and transport this to the rest of the tree parts that need them.

Tree leaves specifically absorb carbon dioxide, or CO2 from the ambient atmosphere through organs called stomates, which would be called pores in human beings.

Trees are differentiated by their interior, woody vascular systems, bark color and composition, leaf, branch, and tree stem sizes and shapes, and varying degrees of height.

Trees also biochemically convert carbon dioxide, as well as photosynthesized light, into sugars, starches, and other nutrients and chemicals to sustain the tree.

And even though it is a critically misunderstood fact, trees are a vital part of the planet’s biodiversity and basically a planetary organ.

Think about it, trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen as a respiration byproduct.

Humanity-fueled climate change is worsening because people and corporations are dumping more CO2 into the atmosphere than trees, shrubs, and soil can naturally recycle. (More on that later.)

In a year, mature or older trees can successfully absorb about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually.9 And that is just one tree!

Meanwhile, depending on the source you refer to, on average a mature tree might release as much as 260 pounds of oxygen annually.10

Owning two mature trees on your property might provide enough clean oxygen for a family of four people for one year. It is why planting trees is so important, they make the environment, relative to where you are, cooler, and create oxygen.

If you consider the planet as a living being and the entire planetary biomass of plants and trees as the planet’s lung, then planet Earth technically inhales and exhales once a year.11 Scientists can track this activity and measure how much of the Earth’s carbon dioxide is absorbed by trees and how much oxygen they release in return.

Hopefully, your eyes are not rolling at this point, but you need to understand this basic information to better understand how the tree stem and tree branches work within the physiology of a tree.

The world needs trees, everyone needs trees, you need trees in your life, whether you recognize it or not.

Are Plants Trees?

The only things that differentiate plants, trees, shrubs, and vines from one another are size, aesthetics, and species.

But technically speaking, “Are plants trees?”

The answer is yes, plants and trees are the same thing.

A tree is classified as a tree when it grows over 13 feet in height. Moreover, to differentiate from plants, the stem (trunk) has characteristics that indicate that the plant is classified as a tree.

Tree Stem vs. Tree Branches (The Basics)

A tree stem could mean two different things relative to tree anatomy; first, a tree stem can be another name for the tree trunk. The tree trunk is also sometimes called the main stem, woody stem, or central stem.

Second, a tree stem can also represent smaller woody branches that offshoot from larger branches from larger tree limbs connected to the central stem, or trunk. (However, even a large tree limb is technically a branch.)

An eye-level view of a large multi trunked Live Oak tree inside a park creating a wide canopy in St Augustine Florida.

The central stem or trunk grows vertically in most cases and is connected to the underground root system. Branches grow outward like large limbs, with even smaller limb appendages growing from the larger and thicker limbs, from the central tree stem, or trunk.

The central tree stem, or the trunk is the growing center of the tree and transports water and nutrients from the soil to the tree branches and leaves. Meanwhile, the leaves and tree branches transport water and light-synthesized food sugars and chemicals to the trunk and root.

Trees can have multiple branches, but many trees have more than one central tree stem.

Most importantly, you should remember that trees are living things that can negatively or positively react to stimuli, and light, or from being overwatered or underwatered. Trees can be traumatized into shock when transplanted.

Scientific research has irrefutably proven that plants, shrubs, and trees, which are different variations of the same thing, are living things. Some radical scientific research even suggests that trees are sentient, communicate with each other via water, nitrogen, and carbon transferrences, and even pass along intergenerational DNA-like data live human beings do when they procreate.1

There is other radical scientific research that suggests that trees communicate collaboratively akin to human communities, share water and food, have memories, can recognize trees, experience trauma, and more.2

Consider, how many times have you or someone you know had a large plant, like a Fiddle Leaf Fig, begin leaning towards a light source, become top-heavy, and fall over?3

No one is suggesting that you hug or start a conversation with a tree. Although there is some unproven research that theorizes the positive vibrations from positive talking and singing might help plants grow.4

The point is that if you don’t consider the species of tree that you plant on your property, how they grow, be cognizant of how they interact with other plant species, or where certain plant anatomy is growing, it could cause you potential financial, property, and legal problems.

Tree Stem: What Is a Tree Branch?

Now is the part where the definitions and classifications relative to tree physiology can become very frustrating, confusing, and odd. This guide will keep tree physiology terms as basic as possible, but it is important to understand that many tree anatomical terms are almost infinitely interchangeable.

A close-up view of an Apple tree stems and branches with green leaves and flowers.

In some situations, a tree stem can actually refer to small branches connected to large branches that are connected to larger and thicker tree limbs, which are technically very large branches with relatively wider diameter girth.

Tree branches are not connected to the central tree stem or the trunk.12 The larger and thicker tree limb is a large appendage, like an arm, that grows outward from the central tree stem.

Consider the tree limb as the first-generation branch that grows out from the central tree stem.

First-generation branches can be referred to as limbs, boughs, and even an arm because they are large and wide, even though they are technically branches too.

Every branch that grows out as second, third, and fourth-generation sub-divisions from the first-generation tree limb (which is also a branch) can rightfully be called a branch. Tree branches get thinner, smaller, and more fragile as they branch out in successive generations.

In other words, small branches grow in divisions from successively larger branches that start from a limb that is connected to the central tree stem, or trunk.

A branch facilitates many functions on a tree. Branches allow the transportation of water and nutrients from the central tree stem’s roots to its leaves.

Branches also transport photosynthesized light that is converted into sugar and nutrients back to the central tree stem.

Leaves, flowers, buds, seeds, and fruits grow on the surface and support area structures of branches.

In a way, branches can be seen as the arms, fingers, and lungs that photosynthesize food and absorb carbon dioxide to help a tree grow and live.

Branches, especially smaller branches, are sometimes known by other names like ramus, rise, twig, spray, branchlet, underbranch, sprig, osiers, withes, or holly.

Once a branch falls or is cut or broken off from a tree limb, it is called a twig or a stick.

What Is a Tree Trunk? Is it the Same as a Tree Stem?

A tree trunk is the central axis and support structure of a tree.13 Limbs, branches, and roots all grow from and are structurally supported by the tree trunk.

An eye-level view of a tree trunk and tree branch.

The tree trunk can be compared to the torso of the human body, it is the main physiological support organ of the tree.

The trunk is where wood grows and develops. Photosynthesized nutrients, carbon dioxide, and water are absorbed from the tree branches and transported to the trunk.

Water and nutrients absorbed from the soil via the roots are transported through the trunk to other parts of the tree.

Branches could not grow, the tree could not develop woody vascular tissue, and the roots could not survive if there was no tree trunk. When a tree dies and the limbs, branches, and leaves fall away, only the trunk remains.

One of the most important factors in identifying how tree limbs or branches grow or respond to outside stimuli is by identifying the aesthetics of the tree trunk.

Scientists and arborists can learn many things about the soil, present and past weather conditions in the area, the age of the tree, and how its growth can affect nearby infrastructures by inspecting or dissecting a tree trunk.

What must be noted now is that from now on in this guide, a tree stem will refer to post-first generation branches and growths from larger tree branches exclusively. Tree trunks will be referred to as trunks, central, main, or woody stems.

To comprehensively understand why you need to understand the physiology of a central tree stem you need to know the anatomy of a tree trunk.

Tree Bark Anatomy 101

A tree trunk has an anatomical system of skin, organs, and even a wood-tissue vascular system that can be compared to a human body.

Tree anatomy has five organ-like components: the outer tree bark, phloem which is also known as the inner tree bark, cambium, sapwood which is also known as the live xylem, and finally heartwood.

The first layer of tree trunk anatomy is the bark which can almost be considered the skin of the tree. Bark nominally protects healthy trees from disease, the environment, and pests.

The bark is used by humanity for a variety of uses, bark is used to make medicines, latex, flavorings, chemicals, spices, and more.

A graphic that shows the anatomy of the tree trunk that consists of heartwood, sapwood, cambium, living phloem, and cork.

Next, the inner secondary layer of the bark is scientifically named the phloem. The phloem is an inner bark layer of woody cells that ferry tree sap, photosynthesized sugars, and other nutrients to the roots and other parts of the tree to help it grow healthily.

The spice Cinnamon is just the phloem,14 or inner bark, of several species of trees from the Cinnamomum genus of trees. If you have ever eaten anything with cinnamon in it, then you were eating tree bark.

The third anatomical layer in the tree trunk is the cambium. The cambium is an extremely thin layer of wood cells that develops and propagates phloem cells towards the exterior bark of the tree.

Cambium also simultaneously develops and propagates sapwood toward the interior of the tree trunk.

Sapwood, or live xylem cells, ferries water throughout the tree. Sapwood also stores starches within it as food reserves.

The fifth and final anatomical layer of the tree trunk is the heartwood. It is located in the center of the tree trunk and is also known as the dead xylem.

The Heartwood is comprised of minerals, resins, and dead xylems cellular materials. It helps to protect healthy trees from pests and diseases from proliferating disease and infection from the center of the tree trunk.

The way that a tree trunk’s anatomy grows inward and outward simultaneously also explains why tree rings exist.

Is a Tree With Peeling Bark Normal?

Some tree species, like Sycamore, Lacebark Elm, and River Birch naturally shed their bark like a snake shedding its skin.

The scientific name for the bark-shedding process is decorticating.

Close up view of an old Oak tree trunk.

However, bark shedding and peeling on a tree is not always normal. Sometimes a tree with peeling bark is due to stress, trauma, damage, disease, or pest infestation.

How Are Tree Rings Connected to the Central Tree Stem?

Tree rings are concentric rings that expand out from the center, or the heartwood of the tree trunk.

When a tree trunk is cut, scientists and arborists can calculate the age of the tree by counting and analyzing the number of concentric circles. If the tree rings are light-colored, then it can indicate that the tree grew during spring or summer.

But if the tree rings are dark-colored, then it can indicate that the tree grew during late summer and fall.

In other words, tree rings represent the physical manifestation of cambium growth outwards.

What Are Multi-Trunked Trees?

Multi-trunked trees are trees with more than one noticeable trunk growing from the root base in the ground. Multi-trunked trees could be a cluster of trees that grew too close together or the result of a root system that grew multiple trunks from the base.

The Jacaranda, European White Birch, Mediterranean Fan Palm, Camphor, Amur Flame Maple, and Silk Trees are a few species examples of multi-trunked trees.

What Are Multi-Stemmed Trees?

There is a distinct difference between multi-trunked and multi-stemmed trees that may seem like hair-splitting but is apt. A multi-trunked tree has large and discernable trunks that can be differentiated from each other.

Meanwhile, multi-stemmed tree branches separate trunks directly above the soil instead of distinguishing solid trunks several feet above the ground.

The Serviceberry, Whitespire Birch, Eastern Redbud, Japanese Dogwood, and Fringe Trees are a few examples of multi-stemmed trees.

Multi-trunked and multi-stemmed trees are technically tall shrubs, although multi-stemmed trees have more in common with shrubs than multi-trunked trees.

Are Trees With Braided Trunks Naturally Occurring?

No. While multi-stemmed and multi-trunked trees occur naturally, braided tree trunks are manually manipulated to look aesthetically exotic.

Tree trunks do not braid their central tree stem axes naturally. Small trees and plants have their tree stems braided as a visual gimmick for profit.

Examples of trees and plants with twisted and braided trunks include the renowned Money Tree, Azalea, Hibiscus, Bay Leaf, and Ficus species.

What Is a Codominant Tree?

A dominant tree is a tree that has only two discernable trunks that are joined near or above the soil but then split into a fork of double trunks. Neither trunk is the dominant trunk in the tree’s physiology.

Large and very tall multi-trunked, multi-stemmed and especially codominant trees can be dangerous in residential areas because they are more likely to shear and break apart in regions with extreme and dangerous wind weather events.

What Is the Function of the Stem?

The tree stem, or in this context, the branch absorbs carbon dioxide via leaves and light to photosynthesize it into sugar and nutrients for the tree to feed on. Flowers, buds, seeds, and fruit grow on tree stems.

Tree stems also store food for the tree; and if the tree stem is green, it can photosynthesize light into food just like a leaf.

What Is an Aerial Stem?

An aerial stem is a vertical branch with natural or human-modified manipulations that provide a service or function that protects or optimizes plant growth.

Thorns, tendrils, hooks, and so on are some examples of aerial stems.

What Is a Subaerial Stem?

A subaerial stem grows and propagates right above the soil or ground but never grows vertically tall above it. Certain pond plants are examples of subaerial stem plants.

A graphic that shows the sub-aerial stem that consists of roots, offset, and new plant.

The Horsetail Reed, Water Lettuce, Pickeral, and Water Lily are examples of plants with subaerial stems.

How Long Does It Take for a Tree To Grow?

The average tree can live anywhere between 30 to 50 years, but there are some trees on Earth that are over 6,000 years old.

There is now general scientific consensus if you want to know how long does it take for a tree to grow, the amount of time it takes for a tree to grow to maturity differs depending on species and local growing conditions.

In What Ways Can Trees and the Tree Stem (Trunk) Be Dangerous?

There are many ways in which trees can be more dangerous than beneficial to homeowners who never perform routine maintenance. The tree roots can grow into your sidewalk and pavement and destroy it slowly.

Or the tree roots can grow under the foundation of your house and damage the integrity of your home.

How Can Tree Branches Be a Hazard to a Residential Home?

Tree branches that are never pruned or trimmed can grow exponentially longer and cause future unforeseen problems. Unpruned tree branches can touch energy lines and become a death hazard to anyone trying to prune them.

Tree pruning guide graphics showing the different parts of a tree that should be cut or removed when doing a maintenance on full grown trees.

Unpruned tree branches that grow too close to a home can act as transport mediums for rodents, insects, and small wild animals to invade your home.

Tall trees with long unpruned branches can cause clogged gutters and water damage to the home due to gutter-trapped leaves.

Tree Stem (The Legal Burden of Not Understanding Tree Anatomy)

You need to understand some basic tree stem and tree branch anatomy, if not overall basic tree anatomy, because a lawyer, insurance claims adjuster, arborist, or landscape business owner might have to talk to you about why an overgrown or diseased tree stem or tree branches is going to cost you money or an extended lawsuit.

Your tree stems, or tree trunk could have roots that grow into the crack of your driveway or even the foundation of your home and destroy the integrity that keeps them solid or standing. Depending on where you live, if the tree stems root system of a neighbor or condo owner destroys your pavement, driveway, or the foundation of your property or house, you might be liable to pay for the damages yourself.5

In such a situation, boundary lines, homeowner association rules, and extended litigation could put you in a situation where you have to pay your lawyer a lot of money to win in the long term.

A low-level view of a dead tree with multiple tree stems.

Almost 80 people employed or serviced by one of Florida’s energy companies were killed due to overgrown tree branches growing too close to dangerous power lines within the last decade.6

And that was a study conducted on the tree branch-related deaths connected to one energy company.

If you know the species of the trees on your landscape, then you can understand how big its tree stem, or trunk will grow. The larger the tree trunk, then the larger the effort and finances it might take to remove it if it dies or causes problems in the future.

The average Sequoia can grow up to 280 feet and have a tree stem diameter girth of almost 30 feet.7 But even some species of Fir and Spruce can grow to height and diameter dimensions similar to a Sequoia.8

The point is that for your own benefit, and to potentially protect the future structural integrity of your home and property, you should know basic tree anatomy.

What Can Homeowners Do To Protect Their Trees and Properties?

Hire landscapers and arborists to perform tree diagnosis and maintenance on a regular schedule, like once or twice a year.

Pay attention to how long tree branches grow and how wide and large tree trunks grow on your property.

Ignoring the branches, limbs, and tree trunks on a tree could spell financial troubles for you in the future. Ask an arborist to give you basic tips on how to recognize such issues.

How Does Planting Trees Help To Fight Climate Change?

As previously mentioned, one mature tree can absorb about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide and release 260 pounds of oxygen annually. Trees, soil, and especially shrubs are efficient in absorbing carbon dioxide from the environment and releasing it back into the environment over years, decades, and centuries in a natural recycling system.

Human beings add over 330 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the global environment annually.

The planet can’t efficiently recycle that much carbon with that kind of backlog. So, the planet’s temperature heats up due to the atmosphere containing too much CO2.

Plant at least two plants on your residential landscape and you scrub at least 100 pounds of CO2 annually.

Trees can be very beneficial to humans because they can increase your property value, beautify your residential landscape, and maybe stop lawsuit issues from your neighbors. However, they can also become dangerous if you plant them on your property without knowing the species or performing regular visual maintenance of the tree stem or tree branches.

Frequently Asked Questions About Tree Stem

What Are Tree Stems?

Tree stems are essentially another term for second, third, and fourth-generation (and so on) branches that grow from the tree limbs that connect to the central tree stem, or trunk. A tree stem can also refer to the central or main stem, the tree trunk.

How Can Tree Trunks Be Dangerous to Homes?

Trees that are situated too close to homes can become a fire hazard. Also, a tree trunk can grow exponentially wider and damage the structure of a house that is too close to it.

What Are Some Types of Stem?

Stems can be vertical, horizontal, or even lay and creep on the ground. Some various stem types in aerial, subaerial, and underground stems.

What Is an Underground Stem?

Underground stems are plants that have stems that grow entirely under the soil. Stolons, bulbs, and tubers, like potatoes, are examples of plants with underground stems.

Is There a Tree With 5 Leaves Per Stem?

Trees with five leaves per stem, or green branch end in this context, include but are not limited to the Purslane, Boxelder, Christmas Rose, Woodbine, Lagundi, and Virginia Creeper.

Is There a Tree With 7 Leaves Per Stem?

Trees with seven leaves include but are not limited to the Mockernut Hickory, Hybrid Tea Rose, Umbrella Plant, and the Cannabis plant.

How Can Various Types of Trees Be Identified and Classified?

The various types of trees that exist can be identified through bark color and examination, examining wood density, height, branch, seed, flower, and leaf aesthetics, and identifying native regions of growth.

What Is the Best Method To Tell How Old a Tree Is?

One of the ways how to tell how old a tree is requires cutting down the tree and measuring the visible tree rings on the trunk.

A tree’s age can also be calculated by arborists measuring its diameter a few feet over the ground and using specialized calculations.

Should You Drill Holes in Christmas Tree Trunk?

No, you should not drill holes in Christmas Tree trunk and it is not recommended for decoration purposes. Some arborists or landscape workers may drill holes in a trunk as part of a treatment to introduce herbicide to kill a tree and facilitate its quicker removal.


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