Knowing how to identify a new tree can be overwhelming since there are more than 60,000 tree species in the world. The leaf pattern of trees, however, can help you narrow the list down. Identifying the species of tree a leaf belongs to requires recognition of its key characteristics and comparison to leaf data in a plant database. After consulting identification resources, if you are still unsure what leaf you have found, you can always consult an expert.
Method 1: Physically identifying the leaves
1. Find out what type of leaf it is.
Broadleaf leaves are wide and flat, and are the most common type of leaf. Needles, cacti, and scales are also types of leaves. Cypress trees have scale leaves, which are thin and oblong like needles, thick, spine-covered cactus leaves, and needle-like needle leaves. To determine what species your leaf is, compare it to the different leaf types.
Likewise, if you find a needle leaf, it may belong to a pine tree.
2. Look at how the leaves are arranged.
In some plants, leaves grow singly, while in others, they grow in groups of two, three, and even more. The number of leaves in each section of the arrangement and whether the leaves are arranged in a group or separately.
Those leaves may be red maple leaves if they are arranged oppositely and in pairs.
3. Leaves have a specific shape.
Each leaf has its own distinct shape that makes it easy to differentiate it from another. You will need to determine the leaf shape, whether it is heart-shaped, linear, oblong, elliptical, or any other common leaf shape.
The leaf of a black tupelo may have a heart-shaped shape, for example.
4. Observe the edges of the blades of the leaf.
A leaf’s blade differs according to what type of edge surrounds it. If you note whether the leaf’s edge is smooth, jagged (“toothed”), or with large chunks removed (“lobed”), you can better search online for the leaf.
An oak tree leaf, for example, would have lobed edges.
5. Vein patterning on a leaf can be seen.
In the form of wrinkles or tubes, the veins run along the blade in specific patterns. To distinguish similarly-shaped leaves, refer to a field guide or a leaf identification app to see how the veins are marked.
Leaf midribs are large veins that run along the middle of the leaves. The midrib’s size and shape allow the leaf to stand out from other leaves on a tree.
The leaf you have found may have been from a dogwood tree if it has curved veins, for example.
6. Leaf petioles, stalks that connect the leaves to the tree, should be checked.
Different shaped and textured petioles are available. Others are short, thin, and rigid, while others are long, thick, and spongy. Consider the characteristics of the petiole and compare it with the trees in identification guides.
Chokecherry leaves, for example, have a short petiole, so it could be the leaves of this tree.
7. Stipules on leaves should be noted.
Some trees have two small flaps called stipulates that grow near their petioles. You should remember that a stipule helps distinguish a tree in an identification guide if it has one.
A sweet birch leaf would have ovate-shaped stipules, for example.
8. Describe your leaf’s physical characteristics.
By comparing plant traits, you can find a match based on their physical characteristics. Be sure to include how you found the leaf, the environment you were in, and the season it was during the time you found it.
Compare the leaves with other pictures of trees later on by taking a few pictures.
Method 2: Consult an identification guide
1. A leaf field guide can help you locate your leaf.
The best way to learn about plants in your region or climate is to purchase or borrow a field guide. Follow up the most likely matches with online research after comparing the plant descriptions and pictures to your tree leaf.
2. Check out a website for tree identification.
Users of tree identification websites can search through the thousands of tree species in their database and identify trees by entering their characteristics. If you have notes on your leaf and photos of it, you can use any of the following popular tree identification sites:
What Tree is this?: https://whatistheplant.com/
Plant Database: WFO, POWO and WikiPedia
3. Consider using a plant identification app.
Smartphone apps work in a similar way to identification websites by allowing users to describe the tree leaf they found and finding the most likely match. The user can even compare a picture of the leaf with others in the app’s database with some apps. Plant ID apps include the following:
What Is the Plant
Virginia Tech Tree ID
What Tree is That?
4. Visit a nearby nursery or botanist.
You can identify your plant from its leaves by asking someone who has spent years studying plants. You can get a professional opinion from a gardening specialist at a plant nursery or a botanist by bringing a photo of the tree leaf.
- Plant specialists are usually found in most biology departments in colleges and universities.
- Try posting your question on a message board for plant enthusiasts if you don’t have any botanists or gardening specialists in your area.