Identify Common North American Hardwood Trees With Leaves

A Quick and Easy Way to Identify 50 Common North American Trees

When you are trying to identify a tree, examining the leaves on hardwood trees and needles on conifers can be a big help. If a tree's foliage is a leaf and not a needle, then you are probably dealing with a hardwood or deciduous tree. There can be dozens of tree families that make up a hardwood forest so there will be hundreds of leaf shapes and structures to contend with.

Knowing that you have a tree that has a true leaf will be a big first step in tree species identification. If a tree's foliage has a single "broadleaved" blade or a series of smaller leaflets attached to one or many stems, the odds are great that you are dealing with both deciduous and evergreen hardwoods.

To figure out the identification of the trees you are looking at, take a look at the leaf's shape and parts and match it up with the two basic types of leaf arrangements identified below. Every hardwood tree will have either a simple or compound leaf structure. These arrangements are essential to the final identification so become very familiar with these structures.

So, let's start the process by determining the initial leaf structure that will ultimately lead you to the name of your tree.

If your tree is dormant (in winter), use the guide for Identifying North American Winter Deciduous Trees in Dormancy.

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Trees With a Simple Leaf

Green Leaf on White Background
Lauren Burke/ Photographer's Choice RF/ Getty Images

A simple tree leaf has a complete and undivided blade that may or may not be formed by lobes where the gaps between lobes do not reach to the main vein. 

If your tree has a leaf that is simple in structure, or more precisely, a leaf that has one just one blade attached to a stalk or petiole, you have a simple leaf. If your leaf is simple, go to lobed and unlobed leaves.

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Trees With a Compound Leaf

Compound leaf
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In a compound leaf, the leaf blade is divided, forming leaflets that are attached to the middle vein but have their own stalks.They can be pinnate or palmate in arrangement.

To be compound your tree should have a leaf with secondary leaves, called leaflets, borne on a single stalk attached to a twig. If yes, go to compound leaves.