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

Tell a maple leaf apart from a sycamore leaf

maple leaf and blue sky


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The leaves of a maple tree are very distinct, but that shape does not belong to maple leaves alone—a number of broadleaf trees have maple-like leaves. This list includes sycamore, yellow-poplar, and sweetgum trees. Like the maple tree, 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.

Because the leaves of these species can look so similar, it can be hard to tell exactly what you are looking at. Examining the leaves more closely can help you identify them.

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Maple Leaves

Red maple leaves against a blue sky.

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The major maples have leaves that are divided into three to five lobes. Each lobe is less than four inches in size. and they have an opposite leaf arrangement. Other trees with "maple-like" leaves—the sycamore, sweetgum, and yellow-poplar—have leaves that are alternate in arrangement.

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). Most maple trees are between 30 and 150 feet tall, with flowers that are yellow, orange, red, or green.

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. However, they can also be found in 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 Leaves

Green sycamore leaf with pointed edges.

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Like maple leaves, sycamore leaves are divided into three to five shallow lobes. However, when mature, those lobes extend beyond four inches in size. Like the sweetgum and the yellow-poplar, the sycamore has leaves that are alternate in arrangement.

Sycamore trees are also distinguished by their large patches of smooth bark, which has a creamy "camo" appearance from its 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, ranging from the Old World sycamore (Platanus orientalis) to the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) to the California sycamore (Platanus racemosa). As a whole, 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, and sycamore wood is used to make furniture, boxes, and crates.

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Yellow-Poplar Leaves

Young leaves on an American Tulip Tree.

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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. Leaves are typically greenish-yellow and sometimes orange.

The yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is the tallest eastern hardwood tree. It 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 often used in landscaping and in the production of honey.

A 133-foot yellow-poplar known as the Queens Giant, or the Alley Pond 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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Sweetgum Leaves

Red Sweetgum leaves in autumn light.

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Sweetgum leaves are star-shaped with five (sometimes seven) long, pointed lobes whose veins connect to a notched base. They range in color from green to yellow to deep red. The sweetgum produces greenish flowers covered with fine hairs, and its fruit resembles small "sticker balls" or "burr balls," which are eaten by birds and chipmunks.

Species of sweetgum trees are found around the world, from North America (Liquidambar styraciflua) to China (Liquidambar acalycina) to Greece and Turkey (Liquidambar orientalis). They grow best in temperate climates with distinct seasons.