How to Identify Tree Leaves

Published January 31, 2019
 Still life of shapes, patterns and colours

It can easier to identify tree leaves than you think. There are a few simple tricks you can use to solve the mystery of tree leaves - whether you are a gardener trying to figure out which tree is filling your yard with all of those leaves that need to be raked up in the fall or if you are a nature buff trying to identify the trees you spot while out exploring the world.

Identifying Trees By Their Leaves: The Narrowing Process

You can identify a tree by matching its leaf against a specific type of tree. You can do this easily by looking at the characteristics of the leaf and asking yourself a series of questions.

Here is a three-step plan to narrow down the identification of the tree by examining its leaves:

Step 1: Check for Needle Leaves

Leaves made up of series of needle bundles, each of which is attached to the stem at a different point, are usually Pine trees or Larch trees. Pine trees are evergreen, and they have long, straight needles in bunches of two to five needles per bunch. Larches shed annually and have shorter needles that flare out from the branch.

Specifically, you should ask yourself:

  • Is the leaf made up of needles? In other words, does the leaf have a stem with a series of needles coming off it?
  • If so, the leaf likely belongs to some type of evergreen or conifer tree such as a Fir, Pine, Spruce or Larch tree.
  • If not, go on to Step 2.
Needle leaves

Step 2: Check for Scaly Leaves

Scaly leaves that are flat and attached to stems with pine cones or pink flowers come from Cedar trees. When you hold up a stem, Cedar leaves may look like a fan. If the scaly leaves are full rather than flat and the stems hold blue or purple berries, they come from a Juniper tree. Juniper trees also have a distinctive smell, reminiscent of gin, so giving the leaf a sniff may also help you identify it as a Juniper leaf.

  • Is the leaf scaly? Look for a stem with several, smaller leaf stems coming off it. These smaller stems should be covering in bushy or scaly green leaves - think of the branches of a Christmas tree.
  • If so, the leaf is probably from a Cypress, Cedar or Juniper tree.
  • If not, go on to Step 3.
Berries on a Juniper tree

Step 3: Check for Simple and Compound Leaves

The leaves that are not needles or scaly are either simple or compound leaves. They can be the most difficult to classify, simply because there are so many different kinds. They are the most typical kinds of leaves and are associated with the greatest number of trees. They typically come from hardwood or deciduous trees.

Start by deciding if the leaf is simple or compound:

  • Simple leaves have a single stem that runs up through the body of the leaf, with veins coming off from the central stem leaf system.
  • Compound leaves have one stem that has several leaves coming off it. It essentially looks like a stem with several simple leaves attached.

Simple Leaves

If you have a simple leaf, decide if it is, unlobed (completely solid all around) or lobed (scalloped edges that weave in towards the stem and back out).

  • If the leaf is unlobed, decide if it has smooth or spiked edges. If it has smooth edges, it may be a Magnolia, Dogwood, Persimmon, Black Gum or Water Oak leaf. If it has spiked edges, it may be a Willow, Beech, Elm, Birch or Cherry tree leaf.
  • If the leaf is lobed, decide if the lobes look even or not. If the lobes are uneven, the leaf may be from a Mulberry or Sassafras tree. If the lobes are even, the leaves may be from a Maple, Sweet Gum, Yellow Poplar, Red Oak or White Oak tree.
Beech Tree

Compound Leaves

Compound leaves are slightly easier to deal with. If the smaller leaves seem to grow directly from the stem, they are likely from a Chestnut or Buckeye tree. If the smaller leaves have tiny stems that attach them to the main stem, you may be dealing with leaves from a Pecan, Honey or Black Locust, Walnut, Ash or Hickory tree.

Fresh green leaves with unripe walnut

Leaf Identification Charts and Information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is an excellent source for tree information. For more localized information, your local nursery professional can be an excellent resource if you are unable to identify leaves.

How to Identify Tree Leaves