How to Identify Deciduous Trees by Their Leaf

Whether you're on a walk in the woods or a park or wondering what kind of trees you have in your own yard, leaves provide major clues to their identity. Deciduous trees, also called broadleaf, like oaks, maples, and elms shed their leaves in the fall and sprout beautiful new green ones every spring. A forest is home to dozens of tree families, and that means there are many leaf structures and shapes that differentiate them.

The first difference in leaves is the structure. All leaves fall into two categories: simple or compound leaf structure. The second clue to look for is whether the leaves are opposite or alternate. Then look for whether the leaves are fan-shaped, deeply lobed or toothed. When you narrow down your leaves this far, you can move onto issues beyond leaves, such as when the tree flowers and what the flowers look like, along with the characteristics of the bark and the size and shape of the tree. 

To identify a particular tree, check all the main aspects of the leaf so that you can narrow it down to a few choices and then research other parts of the tree that hold the remaining clues.

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Simple Leaves

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

A simple tree leaf has one blade attached to the stalk. Examples: Maple, Sycamore, Sweet Gum, and Tulip.

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Compound Leaves

Compound leaf
A compound leaf. ByMPhotos / Getty Images

In a compound leaf, the leaf has leaflets that are attached to the middle vein but have their own stalks. Examples: Hickory, Walnut, Ash, Pecan, and Locust.

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Opposite Leaves

White Ash Tree
Leaves of a white ash. Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. 1995. Northeast Wetland Flora

Opposite leaves are just what it sounds like: the leaflets, whether simple or compound, are across from each other on the same leaf twig. Examples: Ash, Maple, and Olive.

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Deeply Toothed or Lobed

Sugar maple leaves in spring
Sugar maple leaves. Image by treegrow under a Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License

Deeply lobed leaves are easy to recognize, with their obvious protrusions. Toothed leaves look like they are serrated, as opposed to having smooth margins, or edges.

Lobed: Maple and Oak.

Toothed: Elm, Chestnut, and Mulberry.

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English Walnut tree
English walnut leaves. Image by ahenobarbus under a Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License

If compound leaves are alternate in form, they are called pinnate, and they often look like a feather. There are three types of pinnately alternate leaves: Odd, which means there is an odd number of leaflets, with one at the top of the twig; twice pinnate, which means the leaflets are themselves divided into leaflets; and even, which means there are an even number of leaflets on the twig.

Examples: Hickory, Walnut, and Locust.

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Alternate Leaves

 Alternate leaves do not sit directly across from each other on the twig but rather are in between each other on opposite sides of the twig; they alternate.

Examples: Hawthorn, Sycamore, Oak, Sassafras, Mulberry, and Dogwood.

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If compound leaves are opposite in form, they are called palmately compound, with the shape of the palm of the hand or like a fan.

Examples: Maple and Horse Chestnut.