How to Identify Maple, Sycamore, Yellow-Poplar, and Sweetgum Leaves

maple leaf and blue sky


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A number of broadleaf or deciduous trees have maple-like leaves, including the sweetgum, sycamore, and yellow-poplar trees. These species have leaves whose ribs or veins radiate out from a single stalk or petiole attachment in a palmate pattern (that is, the lobes resemble a set of fingers). Some people refer to these leaves as having a "star" form or a maple-like silhouette. Examining the leaves more closely can help you identify exactly which species you are looking at.

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red sugar maple leaf covered by raindrops lying on a rough concrete slab

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The major maples have leaves that are divided into three to five lobes, opposite in leaf arrangement, with each lobe less than four inches in size. Other trees with "maple-like" leaves—the sycamore, sweetgum, and yellow-poplar—have leaves that are alternate in arrangement. Most maple trees are between 30 and 150 feet tall, with flowers that are yellow, orange, red, or green.

The maple is a genus with about 128 different species, including the vine maple (Acer circinatum), hornbeam maple (Acer carpinifolium), and paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Maples are among the most shade tolerant deciduous trees and thrive in areas with cooler temperate climates such as Canada and the northern United States.

Maples are found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, where some varieties—including the Japanese maple and the field maple—are grown as decorative bonsai trees. Because of their beautiful coloring, maples are often grown as ornamental trees. They are also, of course, used for their syrup, especially in North America, where the maple leaf appears on the Canadian flag.

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Sycamore leaf, a member of the maple family, isolated on white


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Sycamores have leaves that are divided into three to five shallow lobes. When mature, they extend beyond four inches in size. Like the sweetgum and the yellow-poplar, the sycamore has leaves that are alternate in arrangement. Sycamores are also distinguished by their large patches of smooth bark, which has a creamy "camo" appearance, a mix yellow, tan, and gray. Where the bark is not smooth it is usually rough and flaky, resembling a layer of broken scales.

Sycamores are often found in humid continental climates, especially in wetlands and areas near rivers and streams. In North America, their range extends from Ontario to Florida.

Sycamores include a variety of tree species, from the Old World sycamore (Platanus orientalis) to the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) to the California sycamore (Platanus racemosa). Sycamores are members of the genus Planatus, which is made up of species commonly known as plane trees. They are typically grown as ornamental trees. Sycamore wood is used to make furniture, boxes, and crates.

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closeup of tulip poplar leaf

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Yellow-poplar leaves are flat and slightly lobed and appear to be trimmed across the top, with two deeper lobes on either side of the midrib (the primary rib or central vein). This "trimmed" top helps distinguish the leaves from those of maples and sycamores. In profile, the leaves of the yellow-poplar actually look like tulips. For this reason, the tree is also known as the tulip tree. The tree's leaves are greenish yellow and sometimes orange.

The tallest eastern hardwood tree, the yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is native to North America, where it is found along the eastern coast from Connecticut to northern Florida. The tree can thrive in a variety of climates, though it prefers direct sunlight. It is used in landscaping and in the production of honey. The tree's soft, fine wood is used for decorative paneling in houses and coffins and is also popular with wood sculptors.

A 133-foot yellow-poplar known as the Queens Giant is believed to be the oldest living thing in New York City. The tree is located in Alley Pond Park in Queens and is visible from Interstate 495.

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close up of sweet gum leaf on white background

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Sweetgum leaves are star-shaped with five (sometimes seven) long pointed lobes whose veins connect to a notched base. Varieties of sweetgum have spiky, prickly balls known as inflorescences. Leaves range in color from green to yellow to deep red. The sweetgum produces greenish flowers covered with fine hairs. The tree's fruit resembles small "sticker balls" or "burr balls," which are eaten by birds and chipmunks. These seed pods can be a nuisance to humans since they stick so easily to shoelaces and clothing.

Species are found around the world, from North America (Liquidambar styraciflua) to China (Liquidambar acalycina) to Greece and Turkey (Liquidambar orientalis). The sweetgum grows best in temperate climates with distinct seasons. Its reddish-brown, fine-grained wood is used to make furniture, paper, decorative paneling, crates, boxes, and chopsticks. In China, the spiky fruit of the sweetgum is used in herbal medicine as a cure for indigestion, anemia, and menstrual irregularity. It is also believed to unblock energy pathways and facilitate the spread of qi (a vital force in traditional Chinese medicine).