An orange line painted around a tree trunk
(Image credit: Olga_Anourina)

Paint marks on trees are a form of communication used by landowners to designate instructions to loggers or the public, for example. It is more permanent than printed signs and can prevent timber theft. Learn more about this unusual system.

Meanings Behind Tree Markings – What Paint On Trees Means

You may get an eerie feeling when walking through a forest when you see strange paint markings on trees. Never fear, it’s not evidence of outer space invasion but tree-marking symbols. They can indicate property lines, timber harvesting boundaries, which trees to cut, and even “no trespassing.” Trees marked with paint are a form of communication used by landowners, loggers, foresters, and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service developed the system as a way to account for and value forest trees before they are removed from national forest lands. It is a good way to quickly identify which trees are to be cut or stay for a sales contract, and marking trees also helps to prevent timber theft.

Tree painters use special marking paint that contains registered tracers when they mark trees slated for sale. Paint can be aerosol cans, oil-based, or latex. The oil based paints last about five years but some authorities say it can penetrate wood and damage the tree. Latex paint lasts about three years. Many paint the mark about eye level on the tree. If desired, the bark can be scraped off to create a smooth painting surface, about 4 inches (10 cm) wide and 6 inches (15 cm) long. The marks need to be checked every two to three years and repainted every five years.

Tree Marking Color Code – What Different Marks Mean

The painted color codes can vary by the region, the forest service, or the timber contracting office, but here are some general guidelines.

  • Red - The land belongs to the U.S. Forest Service and you should leave.
  • Orange - Two orange bands indicate the boundary of a sales contract.
  • Purple - A vertical or square purple paint mark on trees or fenceposts indicates No Trespassing in several states. It is cheaper and easier to maintain than printed signs and prevents abuse or theft of signs.
  • White Circle - The tree houses an animal or bird that is endangered.
  • Blue/Yellow - Tree is slated to be cut.
  • Orange/Pink - Leave the tree.
  • Black - Cancel prior work.
  • Yellow, red, blue, or orange - Common colors or combination of colors designating property lines in lieu of a fence to prevent timber and land loss.

The next time you're walking in the woods and someone asks, “What does purple paint on trees mean?” You can tell them it means No Trespassing and head the other way.

Susan Albert

After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in English, Susan pursued a career in communications. In addition, she wrote garden articles for magazines and authored a newspaper gardening column for many years. She contributed South-Central regional gardening columns for four years to While living in Oklahoma, she served as a master gardener for 17 years.