Old English treo, treow "tree" (also "timber, wood, beam, log, stake"), from Proto-Germanic *trewam (source also of Old Frisian tre, Old Saxon trio, Old Norse tre, Gothic triu "tree"), from PIE *drew-o-, suffixed variant form of root *deru- "be firm, solid, steadfast," with specialized senses "wood, tree" and derivatives referring to objects made of wood.
The line which divides trees from shrubs is largely arbitrary, and dependent upon habit rather than size, the tree having a single trunk usually unbranched for some distance above the ground, while a shrub has usually several stems from the same root and each without a proper trunk. [Century Dictionary]
The widespread use of words originally meaning "oak" in the sense "tree" probably reflects the importance of the oak to ancient Indo-Europeans. In Old English and Middle English also "thing made of wood," especially the cross of the Crucifixion and a gallows (such as Tyburn tree, famous gallows outside London). Middle English also had plural treen, adjective treen (Old English treowen "of a tree, wooden"). For Dutch boom, German Baum, the usual words for "tree," see beam (n.). Meaning "framework of a saddle" is from 1530s. Meaning "representation of familial relationships in the form of a tree" is from c. 1300. Tree-hugger, contemptuous for "environmentalist" is attested by 1989.
Minc'd Pyes do not grow upon every tree,
But search the Ovens for them, and there they be.
["Poor Robin," Almanack, 1669]
"to chase up a tree," 1700, from tree (n.). Meaning "take a tree-like form" is from 1884. Related: Treed; treeing.