How to Identify Trees With Leaves

A basic guide to identifying trees with leaves of all shapes and sizes

Identifying trees with leaves
swissmediavision/E+/Getty Images

Would you like to learn how to identify trees in your local community? The best place to get started is by looking at the tree's foliage. 

Trees With Leaves

This is a big category, so let's break it down into two main groups:

Trees with needles or scale-like leavesCedar and juniper trees have scale-like leaves that look more like flattened out fans than either leaves or needles. Cedar trees have green scales and small cones. Junipers, on the other hand, have bluish, berry-like cones.

Trees with leaves. To make things simpler, we are once again going to break this category into two groups.

Trees With Simple Leaves

These trees have one leaf attached to each stem. Leaves with a consistent leaf edge are called unlobed leaves while trees with leaves that form shapes along their margins are called lobed leaves. If your tree has unlobed leaves, you must next determine whether or not it has teeth - or serrations around its margin.

  • Unlobed and smooth (no teeth). Magnolia have large, glossy green leaves with rust-colored hairs on the under-surface. Live oaks have long slender deciduous leaves and small acorns. Dogwoods have wavy edges and 6-7 veins that pattern either side of the leaf's midrib. If your tree has leaves that are oblong or elliptical and appear crowded on short branches, it might be a Blackgum. And if its leaves are thick and pointed, it might be a Persimmon.
  • Unlobed and serrated. Willow trees have long skinny leaves. Basswood trees have wide leaves with coarse teeth and a notched area around the stem. Elm trees are asymmetrical at the stem and double serrations around the edge. If your tree's leaves are soft and shiny with teeth that curve in from the surface, it is probably a Beech. If its leaves are heart-shaped with double serrations, it is likely a Birch. And if it has elliptical leaves with jagged edges, it is probably a Cherry.  
  • Lobed. If your tree had leaves with different lobe patterns on the same tree, it is probably a ​Sassafrass or a Mulberry. 
  • If the lobes seem to radiate from a central point like fingers on a hand, it is called palmate and it is a maple, sweetgum, sycamore, or poplar. Maple trees have three to four lobes and are arranged opposite of one another on the branch. Sycamore trees have big leaves that are larger than four inches with shallow lobes and alternating (not directly across from one another,) on the branch. Trees with star-shaped leaves with pointed lobes are likely Sweetgums. And leaves that look like they have been cut off or flattened at the top with two lobes on other side of the mid-rib are probably Poplars.
  • If the lobes appear to radiate from several points along the midrib, the leaves are considered pinnate and it is either an oak or a holly tree. White Oak trees have lobes that are rounded along the edges and no spines. Red Oak leaves are rounded at the base but jagged or spiny along the edges. And Holly trees have small red berries and leaves with sharp, pointed lobes.

Trees With Compound Leaves

  • Palmately compound leaves. Trees in this category have multiple leaves that appear to grow from the same point on the stalk. Buckeye trees have long leaves with jagged saw-toothed edges while Horsechestnut trees have shiny nuts and seven leaflets that turn yellow in the fall.
  • Pinnately compound leaves. Trees with that have pinnate compound leaves have leaflets that grow from multiple points along the stem. Leaves that appear doubly compound (leaflets within leaflets,) are likely Locust trees. Hickory trees have nine blades that are uneven in size and alternate along the stem. Ash trees have leaflets that are opposite from one another along the stem and are the same shape and size. Walnut trees have 9-21 pointed leaflets that alternate along the stem. And Pecan trees have 11-17 curved, sickle-shaped leaflets that alternate along the stem.