Common Ancester of Two Nodes in Tree

Common Ancester of Tree is said to be a very common problem asked during an interview. This problem is not a hard one, but there are still several points should be carefully handled. And the most important notice to remember is that, DO NOT assume the tree is a binary tree. Repeat, DO NOT assume the tree is a binary tree.

Yes, many will fall at the first step. Didn't make it clear when answering a question is the one of the mistakes that should not be made most. So the first step to solve this problem should always be making sure if the tree in the question is a binary tree.

Then, if you are sure it is about binary tree, then the following is related notes.

Binary tree

The tree to find common ancester in is a binary tree, and let's say we have two nodes and these two nodes are guaranteed exist in the tree (This is one point that you should make it certain before answering).

The second step should always be settle the data structures down. It is also important too. Will will using the a TreeNode like:

class TreeNode {
    TreeNode left;
    TreeNode right;
    int value;

A good enough solution is to traverse through every nodes exactly once recursively and find a node follows the conditions below or vice versa:

  1. the node A is in the left sub tree of this node
  2. the node B is in the right sub tree of this node

Note, both A and B might be the common ancester too. So a simple program to solve the problem might be:

TreeNode findCommonAncester(TreeNode root, TreeNode a, TreeNode b) {
    if (root == null) return null;
    if (root == a || root == b) return root;

    TreeNode left = findCommonAncester(root.left, a, b);
    TreeNode right = findCommonAncester(root.right, a, b);

    if (left != null && right != null) return root;
    else if (left != null) return left;
    else return right;

There is a problem with the code above that if one of a or b is not in the tree and the function returns a or b, we can not make sure if the node is really the common ancester(and the other node is in the children tree of this node) or the other node is not in the tree.

This problem is not easy to solve under Java which can not return multiple return value. A possible solution might be check the tree and make sure they are all exist in the tree before running the algorithm above. It keeps the same time complexity for algorithm analysis but might be much slower in practical.

The following code uses a structure as the return value of the function to get the common ancester of two nodes while nodes might not be in the tree.

class Res{
    TreeNode a = null;
    TreeNode b = null;
    TreeNode ancester = null;

Res findCommonAncester(TreeNode root, TreeNode a, TreeNode b) {
    if (root == null) return new Res();

    Res left = findCommonAncester(root.left, a, b);
    Res right = findCommonAncester(root.right, a, b);

    if (left.ancester != null) return left;
    if (right.ancester != null) return right;

    if (right.a != null) left.a = right.a;
    if (right.b != null) left.b = right.b;

    if (root == a) left.a = root;
    if (root == b) left.b = root;

    if (left.a != null && left.b != null) {
        left.ancester = root;

    return left;

TreeNode findCommonAncester(TreeNode root, TreeNode a, TreeNode b) {
    Res res = findCommonAncester(root, a, b);
    return res.ancester;

Let's say the tree has nodes. The time cost of the algorithm is as in the worst case, every node will be visited once. As them use recursion. The average space cost is . But in the worst case, the space complexity may be and if is very large, it will stack overflow.

Multiple children

If the tree is not a binary tree, the problem must be upgrade. Here we only discuss the case that both two nodes to find ancester are exist in the tree. At first we must change the data structure of the TreeNode.

class TreeNode {
    List<TreeNode> children;
    int value;

The program to find the common ancester doesn't change a lot from the binary tree's program. A node is the first common ancester if and only if the two node are in different child tree of this node.

TreeNode findCommonAncester(TreeNode root, TreeNode a, TreeNode b) {
    if (root == null) return null;
    if (root == a || root == b) return root;

    TreeNode finda = null;
    TreeNode findb = null;
    for (TreeNode n : root.children) {
        if (n == a) finda = a;
        else if (n == b) findb = b;
    if (finda != null && findb != null) return root;
    else if (finda != null) return finda;
    else return findb;

The time complexity is also . The worst space cost is , so it is susceptible to stack overflow error too.

Node has pointer to parent

If the Node has a pointer to parent or we can easily get the path from root to the two nodes, there is another way to find the most common ancester. At first we get two path from root to node a and b. Then we check from the root one by one parallel until at some position, two nodes are different. The first common ancester stands exactly one step before that position.

We implemented this using a LinkedList in java:

TreeNode {
    TreeNode parent; // the pointer to the parent

TreeNode findCommonAncester(TreeNode a, TreeNode b) {
    LinkedList<TreeNode> apath = new LinkedList<TreeNode>();
    LinkedList<TreeNode> bpath = new LinkedList<TreeNode>();
    while (a != null) {
        a = a.parent;
    while (b != null) {
        b = b.parent;
    TreeNode node = null;
    while ((!apath.isEmpty()) && (!bpath.isEmpty())) {
        TreeNode m = apath.pollFirst();
        TreeNode n = bpath.pollFirst();
        if (m == n) node = m;
        else break;
    return node;

The program above should be able to handle both binary tree or tree has multiple children, not only when both two nodes present in the tree, but also when one or more are not exist.

This problem is usually better than the older one when the parent pointer presents. We can also get all ancesters easily. The time complexity is where is the number of nodes. Compared the recursive solution, this solution is obviously faster and not vulnerable to stack overflow error. But it requires the TreeNode has an extra field. If this field is originally exist, that is good, or it might not be suitable. The space complexity is .

Suggestions when faced with this problem in an interview:

  1. if the TreeNode can be self defined. Just use the last algorithm. It has many advantages and does not easily to be wrong.
  2. if TreeNode is given and no parent pointer allowed, remember to mention this solution apart from the recursive one. What's more, gives the shortcomings of the recursive solutions and in what way this algorithm is better.

Common ancester of two nodes in binary search tree

As for binary search tree. Things is a little simpler. As in the in-order traversal, the elements is increasing, So we can easily verify if a node is the common ancestor of those to nodes. If it is not, we use its value to decide to go to left child or right child.

 * Definition for a binary tree node.
 * public class TreeNode {
 *     int val;
 *     TreeNode left;
 *     TreeNode right;
 *     TreeNode(int x) { val = x; }
 * }
public class CommonAncesterOfTwoNodes {
    public TreeNode lowestCommonAncestor(TreeNode root, TreeNode p, TreeNode q) {
        int a = Math.min(p.val, q.val);
        int b = Math.max(p.val, q.val);

        TreeNode h = root;
        while (h != null) {
            if (h.val >= a && h.val <= b) break;
            else if (h.left != null && h.right !=null) {
                if (h.val > b) h = h.left;
                else if (h.val < a) h = h.right; 
            } else if (h.left != null) {
                h = h.left;
            } else if (h.right != null) {
                h = h.right;
            } else {
        return h;