Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

How to identify common tree leaves

Leaf shapes and characteristics of five common types of trees


In human families, the members often resemble each other. Trees are much the same. When you learn the general appearance of one tree's leaf, you can often recognize its relatives.  You can say, "That leaf looks like a willow," just as you might say, "That boy looks like a Johnson."

And keep in mind that there are always exceptions -- some leaves don't look exactly like their relatives in every detail.

Here are some generalizations that will help you recognize five common tree families:

Maples

Long-stalked, toothed, broad leaves, shaped somewhat like a hand with the fingers spread ("palmate lobes").

Left: Sugar maple
Right: Red maple

Willows

Long, slender leaves, arranged alternately on long thin branches. The trees are usually found in wet areas.

Left:  Black willow
Right: Pussy willow

Poplars

Broad, shiny leaves with a heart shape, toothed edge, and bright green color. Long slender stems allow the leaves to dance in a breeze.

Left: (Bigtooth aspen)
Right: (Plains cottonwood)

Image credit for Plains cottonwood: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 1: 591.

Oaks

Oak leaves vary greatly in shape from one species to the next. Even a single oak tree may show a lot of variation in leaf shape! Some species of oaks have bristles at the ends of the leaf lobes; some do not. However, one thing that can be said about most oak leaves is that they are leathery in texture. Also, many of them are a little lighter and duller in color on the underside. Look on the ground under the tree for evidence of acorns.
Left: Pin oak
Right: Bur oak

Elms

Elms usually have oval leaves up to 3 inches in length, pointed on one end, with a sawtooth edge and a short stem. The veins are V-shaped and regularly spaced, almost like a feather, and the leaves are rough on the underside. The bottom of the leaf is usually uneven or unequal where it joins the stem.

Left: American elm
Right: Winged elm

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is gnetz51@gmail.com