Leaves and needles
Leaf type, shape, appearance, texture and colour are all key characteristics when identifying trees. They are also often the most obvious feature, particularly in spring and summer. The needles and scales of conifers are also considered types of leaves.
The leaves of broadleaved trees fall into two basic categories.
Simple: leaves are whole and are not divided right to the central leaf vein, such as apple or birch. The edges of some simple leaves can be indented or lobed, such as sycamore, field maple and hawthorn, so take care not to mistake these for compound leaves.
Lime leaves are a simple and heart-shaped leaf with a pointed tip.
Compound: leaves are divided right up to the central vein into separate leaflets. Compound leaves are either pinnate or palmate.
- Pinnately compound leaves are feather-shaped where leaflets are attached in pairs along the central vein such as rowan, ash and elder.
- Palmately compound leaves have leaflets that join to a central point. They are palm-shaped, like the outstretched fingers of a hand. Horse chestnut has palmately compound leaves. Be careful not to mistake Acer species such as sycamore and field maple as having palmately compound leaves - they are actually simple with a lobed margin.
Leaf shape is a description of the form of the leaf. The shape of leaves is a good feature to use, but there can be a lot of variation, even on the same tree. Look for the shape that best represents most of the leaves on the tree.
Some basic leaf shapes and examples include:
- Egg shaped (ovate) - sour cherry, hornbeam, blackthorn, box
- Long and thin (lanceolate) - white willow, osier willow
- Triangular (deltoid) - silver birch, downy birch
- Round (orbicular) - aspen, hazel
- Heart-shaped (cordate) - limes
The edge, or margin, of a leaf or leaflet can be a distinguishing feature.
Look out for edges that are serrated or toothed (hornbeam and common lime), prickly (holly), wavy (beech) or lobed (oaks, hawthorn, sycamore and field maple).
Leaf margins that are smooth and have no obvious features are called entire.
Trees that are closely related to each other show similar characteristics. For example, elms have leaves with a characteristic asymmetrical base.
In elms, the base of the leaf does not equally meet the leaf stalk, also know as the petiole.
Leaves can be glossy, dull or hairy. Look at both sides of the leaf to see whether the hairs cover the whole leaf or are just on the underside.
Leaf colour is also important, especially as they change in autumn. Guelder rose and field maple are two species whose leaves often turn a vivid red or orange in autumn.
If the foliage on the tree is needles or scales then you are probably looking at a conifer that is in the pine, fir, cypress, larch or spruce family.
Most conifer trees have needles or scales present all year that can be used for identification. One of the few exceptions is European larch which loses its needles in winter.
Conifers can be separated into two broad groups.
- Needles: includes pines, spruces, firs, cedars and larches.
- Scales: covers species in the cypress family.
Needles can be different shapes, sizes and arranged differently on twigs.
They can be arranged singly (Douglas fir), in clusters (larch) or in pairs (Scot’s pine).
Long, thin and pointed needles indicate a Corsican pine compared with the short pointed needles of Scot’s pine. Flattened needles could mean a yew and whorls of three needles a juniper.
Top tip: look closely at the type, shape, edge and arrangement of leaves on the twigs. These can be some of the most useful clues for identifying trees.
Other ways to identify trees
A-Z guide to British trees
Explore our guide to the trees of Britain and learn how to identify each species with images and descriptions.