We’ve all seen trees, and we’ve all seen shrubs. Trees are generally taller and grow upward whereas shrubs remain closer to the ground and appear to grow outward. However, I was not satisfied by this simple distinction. I decided to do a little research to uncover what the real difference was between trees and shrubs. Here’s what I found:

Merriam Webster defines a tree as, “a woody perennial plant having a single, usually elongated, main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part.” However, directly under this definition is a second that reads, “a shrub or herb of arborescent form.”

Arborescent means something that is tree-like in its appearance or growth, so this second definition essentially says that a tree includes a shrub that looks like a tree. Not very helpful, so I decided to stick with the first, “woody perennial plant” definition.

Merriam Webster defines a shrub as, “a low usually several-stemmed woody plant.” So, from these two definitions, trees and shrubs are both woody plants. However, trees are defined as being perennial, which means it is a plant that comes back every year. According to the dictionary, there is no such perennial requirement for shrubs, but this does not mean that there are no shrubs that are perennial.

The main takeaway from the distinctions of the two definitions is that trees are defined by a single elongated main stem on its lower part that has few or no branches at its base, whereas shrubs are low to the ground and contain several stems. So, trees and shrubs can be distinguished for the following: the presence of a single primary stem, number of stems, presence of branches near the base, and distance from the ground. It seems that my gut instinct was correct, but I decided to dig deeper.

I came across an article by Hamlin Tree Care that highlighted some key differences between trees and shrubs. It explained the different growth patterns between the two types of plants. Trees, it said, try to grow as tall as possible in an upward manner to try to compete with other trees for sunlight and other resources. Shrubs, the article explained, instead grow outwards to compete with neighboring plants for sunlight and other resources. In fact, the article explained that it is essential to keep in mind these different growth patterns when deciding where and when to plant shrubs.

So, there you have it. I found out that trees and shrubs are different in their appearance and growth habits. It took a little dictionary research and the help of that enlightening article for me to pick up on this subtle distinction. I must say, I am happy with the information I found because, in the future, I will be using it when I decide to plant trees and shrubs in my yard.