Leaf Photo Gallery: Common Trees of the Eastern U.S.

It’s often difficult for novice nature lovers to identify trees.

Dichotomous keys and field guides are hard to use and painfully detailed. They’re also full of dense language, subjective questions and confusing criteria.

They do, however, make it possible to positively identifying a given tree — assuming you’re able to understand the jargon and have a magnifying glass handy to inspect the minute details of the tree in question.

But honestly, you probably don’t need this level of certainty.

You’re just curious about a tree in your backyard or at the local park. You’re not trying to write a dissertation or perform a species survey of a conservation area.

Tree-identification aps are another option, and they’re often a bit more user-friendly than field guides are.

But they’re also unreliable in many cases, and they’re rarely as helpful (or accurate) as they claim to be.

The free versions are usually useless, and the premium versions obviously require you to break out your credit card.

Meanwhile, you’re just some nature lover looking at a tree or leaf and wondering what it is.

But don’t worry — we’re going to make it easy.

We’ve created a leaf gallery that’s exceedingly easy to use, whether you’re sitting at home or you’re currently standing in the middle of the trail, looking at some interesting tree.

How to Use This Gallery: Leaf Gallery Groupings

If you just want to go perusing photos to find the leaf in your hand, have at it.

But if you’d like to incorporate a little more method to your madness, take 10 seconds to familiarize yourself with the way we’ve laid out this gallery.

In a nutshell, we’ve tried to make it easy for those unfamiliar with trees to get a pretty good idea of a tree’s identity via nothing more than a leaf.

Now, let’s be clear: It is not possible to obtain a positive identification from a leaf alone in many cases.

Often, you’ll need to consider other criteria, like the tree’s bark or growth habit.

But that doesn’t matter for 90 percent of the nature lovers reading this right now. The stakes of this game are pretty low — you just wanna know the basic type of tree you’re looking at.

And for this level of certainty, a leaf will often suffice.

Here’s the small rub: There are somewhere in the ballpark of 100 tree species that are fairly common to the eastern United States, which is far to many to sort through visually.

To make things easier, we’ve broken the photos below into smaller groups based on different leaf characteristics.

For example, we’ve placed needle- and scale-like leaves in one group, and all of the triangular-shaped leaves in another. We also have groups made up of leaves with serrated or toothed edges, as well as a group of leaves that are exceptionally large.

In other words, you should be able to glance at the leaf in question, scroll down to the gallery that best describes the leaf shape or characteristic, and simply browse for the one that looks most similar to your leaf. From there, you can click on the photo and visit a page dedicated to that species (or group of species, in some cases).

So, start by looking at the leaf and asking yourself what the first thing you notice about it is.

Is it incredibly large? Heart shaped? Are the leaves different shapes on the same tree?

Whatever the case may be, you can just find the category below that best describes it and jump in.

  1. Scaly or Needle-Like Leaves
  2. Compound Leaves
  3. No Teeth, Spines, or Lobes
  4. Toothed or Spikey Margin
  5. Lobed Leaves
  6. Triangular or Heart-Shaped Leaves
  7. Different Leaf Shapes Occurring on the Same Tree
  8. Exceptionally Large Leaves
  9. Oddly Shaped Leaves

However, because of the way we’ve organized this gallery, there are numerous duplicates in the galleries that follow.

You will even see two different photos of the same species in a single gallery — we’ve done this when trees often produce different types of leaves on the same tree.

For example, tuliptree leaves are distinctly lobed, so they’re in category #5. But they’re also pretty darn weird-looking, so they also appear in category #9. And in some cases, we’ve even used different photos of the same tree species in a single gallery, as leaves often vary a bit in shape.

Alright, let’s jump in.

Wait — there’s one thing…

One Quick Caveat: You Must Know Where the Leaf “Starts”

We’ve tried to make this gallery as intuitive and easy-to-use as is possible. And for the most part, you can simply scan the photos below and find the one that best resembles the leaf you’re trying to identify.

But there is one exception: compound leaves.

In a nutshell, the “leaves” you see on a compound leaf are actually “leaflets.” Collectively, the leaflets make up the proper leaf.

This can obviously be a big deal when trying to identify trees via their leaves. You may think you’re looking at a leaf, when you’re actually looking at a leaflet. This will lead to madness, as you struggle in vein to identify the tree in front of you.

So, what makes a leaf uh, you know, a leaf rather than a leaflet?

It all depends on how we define “leaf.”

Easy: The leaf starts at the twig.

And you can identify the twig by locating the bud. Like so:

  1. Look at a specific leaf (whatever you think the “leaf” is).
  2. Trace it back to the base.
  3. Look for a bud near the base of the “leaf.”
  4. If you see a bud, congratulations! You found the leaf.
  5. If you do not see a bud, continue to the next connection point and look for the bud.
  6. Lather, rinse and repeat until you find the bud. The bud marks the beginning of the leaf.

(This doesn’t matter in the same way with conifers, but fortunately, they’re all easy to recognize as you’ll see in category #1.)

For Real, Now: A Leaf Gallery of Common Eastern Trees

One last word of advice before you jump in: Don’t fret too much about picking the right category. We’ve tried to be inclusive with our groupings.

Don’t spend any time contemplating whether the leaf in your hand is triangular or toothed.

It doesn’t matter — it’ll be in both categories. And we’ve tried to pick leaf photos that resemble the shape that may be giving you trouble.

Enough talk — get to browsing.

#1 Scaly or Needle-Like Leaves

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

Although our groupings are completely artificial, this is one instance in which all of the species that share a set of characteristics (needle- or scale-like leaves, in this case) are actually part of a single evolutionary lineage or taxonomic group.

Because they’re all members of the same lineage, they have a few characteristics that are common to the group or nearly so. For example, they all produce cones (although some have fleshy coverings that make them appear superficially like berries), and all but one are evergreen.

#2 Compound Leaves

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

As mentioned earlier, compound leaves are made up of numerous, smaller leaflets. All U.S. trees with compound leaves are hardwoods, though they’re not all closely related. Several of these species are important to wildlife, humans, and the surrounding habitat.

There are only a handful of tree groups with compound leaves in the eastern United States. The primary representatives are:

  • Hickories
  • Ashes
  • Sumacs
  • Honey Locusts
  • Black Locusts
  • Devil’s Walking Sticks

Also, one maple — the appropriately named ash-leaf maple (Acer negundo) — has compound leaves.

The Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) actually has twice-compound leaves. In other words, if you started at the ostensible “leaf,” you’d trace it back one level, yet you still wouldn’t find a bud. You’d have to go back second level toward the center of the tree before you’d stumble upon the bud.

#3 No Teeth, Spines, or Lobes

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

The leaves in this group are likely the most difficult for beginners to identify (aside from the rage-triggering oaks, which primarily reside in gallery #5).

These leaves are all ovular, circular, or kinda triangularish. Most importantly, they don’t have any notable lobes, “fingers,” thorns, teeth, giant spikes or anything in that ballpark around the border of the leaf.

Some of these are easy to recognize at a glance, but identifying others will require you to investigate the leaf arrangement (i.e. determine if they have positioned in alternating or opposing fashion on the twig) or examine other features, such as the fruit, buds or bark.

#4 Toothed or Spikey Margin

Downy Serviceberry Tree
(Amelanchier arborea)

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

There are a number of different types of leaf margins in this category, and they represent scads of different evolutionary lineages. However, noting the overall shape and edge of a leaf makes for a convenient characteristic by which we can break up leaf photos.

Just note that some trees may produce leaves with or without teeth or other types of margin features. In other words, the presence of spines or teeth isn’t always consistent among trees of a given species. So, you will see some of these species in other groups too.

#5 Lobed Leaves

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

Maples, tuliptrees, sweetgums, ginkgos and sassafras trees represent the bulk of this category. And fortunately, each of these are pretty easy to identify. Maples can be tricky to distinguish from other maples, but you can spot a tuliptree, ginkgo or sweetgum leaf at a glance, as they are not only unique but the leaf shape is pretty consistent.

But this category also includes the oaks, which will drive you crazy. Many species can’t be positively identified from a leaf alone — you’ll need to consider several other characteristics. And even that won’t be enough for you to come away confident in your identification.

Oak leaves not only differ from individual to individual, but also on the same branch.

Nevertheless, we’ve tried to share some of the most quintessential examples of “characteristic” oak leaves in this gallery.

#6 Triangular or Heart-Shaped Leaves

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

When thinking of a generic tree leaf, most of us probably envision it in round or elliptical form, but there are quite a few trees with leaves that are better described as being somewhere between triangular and heart-shaped.

As with all of the other galleries here except the first one, these trees represent many different lineages. These trees also exhibit a diverse array of lifestyles, as some are fast-growing giants and others are slower-growing understory trees.

Unfortunately, a few of the species included in this group can be tricky to distinguish from each other, and the leaf shape of a few varies between individuals. So, while experience will eventually allow you to be able to identify these trees from leaf appearance alone, you’ll likely need to consider growth habit, location, and bark at the outset.

#7 Different Leaf Shapes on the Same Tree

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

Many novice nature lovers are surprised to learn that some trees produce leaves of varying shapes, but its actually more common than you’d initially suspect. And this is especially true of the oaks, which present plenty of other challenges anyway.

But in many cases, the tendency for a tree species to produce leaves of several different shapes makes identification easier.

For example, mulberry leaves can look somewhat similar to basswood leaves. But while basswood trees tend to produce leaves that are all the same basic shape, mulberry trees frequently produce leaves of several different shapes.

#8 Exceptionally Large Leaves

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

Trees with large leaves often catch the eye and stick out in the landscape. In fact, those with really big leaves often appear strangely out-of-place in temperate forests.

Because leaves exist in part to collect sunlight, you’ll find that most of these species, with a few key exceptions, are understory trees that use their large leaves to collect the dim and dappled light filtering through the canopy.

It’s also important to note that leaves growing on young trees or on shaded branches are often larger than those growing on mature trees or on sun-bathed branches. This can even further complicate the identification of oaks, which (and we sound like a broken record, here) are already tricky.

#9 Oddly Shaped Leaves

Click on any photo to enlarge. Click on any species name to learn more.

The easiest group to identify, all of these species have leaves we’d subjectively characterize as — if you’ll forgive the technical jargon — weird looking. They either have an unusual shape or noteworthy margin features, and they’ll often be some of the easiest leaves to identify.

All of these species are included in other categories, but we wanted to make it as easy as possible for nature-loving novices, who’ve stumbled on an eye-catching or unusual leaf.

***

Remember: Leaves alone will rarely provide enough information to arrive at a positive species identification. But as a run-of-the-mill nature lover, who’s simply curious about a tree, it’s often more than enough to be relatively certain. And if not, it’ll still usually allow you to know the basic type of tree, if not a specific species.

We hope this has been helpful in your quest to enjoy the natural world.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *