Home shop Articles Resources Contact Us
Now is a great time to assist in bird conservation.

~Put a bird bath in your yard

~Put up a bird house

~Put up bird feeders (where birds can't be ambushed by predators)

~Limit the use of chemicals and pesticides in your yard

~Plant native fruit and berry bushes and trees

~Hang ribbons or cutout silhouettes of birds in large windows to prevent birds from colliding with them
Sign-up for a free weekly Nugget of Wisdom

What Are Some of the Tricky Things That Backyard Leaves Do?

Leaves put themselves together in many fascinating ways. I just took a walk of about half an hour and collected all the leaves shown in the two pictures on this page, then scanned them, so what you see here is a very typical selection of leaves. But they are very interesting to think about, and sometimes tricky to figure out. For example, take a look at the picture below:

First of all, leaves A and B have pretty much the same structure, right?

Wrong.   Leaf A is the pinnately compound leaf of Hercules-Club, Zanthoxylum clava-herculis, bearing seven leaflets, while "Leaf" B is actually a stem from a Privet Bush, Ligustrum ovalifolium, bearing about 20 simple (undivided) leaves. I know that each of the Privet's green things is a leaf because at the base of each leaf's petiole there is a bud harboring next spring's leaf, and you'd never find a bud at the base of a leaflet, which is just a part of a leaf.

Now for something easier: Leaf C is just a normal simple leaf ("simple" is the proper way to refer to a leaf that is not compound, or separated into distinct leaflets). It's the 5-lobed leaf of the Sweetgum tree, Liquidambar styraciflua.

Leaf D is another compound leaf, but it's compound in a special kind. When compound leaves just have three leaflets, there's a special name for it. They are trifoliate leaves.  This is the trifoliate leaf of a weed called Tick-Trefoil, Desmodium sp.

Leaf E has five leaflets, but notice that its leaflets are arranged much different from the seven leaflets on Leaf A. In Leaf A, the leaflets arise from a rachis, which is the continuation of the leaf's petiole -- the stem-like thing attaching the leaf to the twig. However, in Leaf E there is no rachis. The five leaflets all come together in one place. They are held like the fingers, or digits, on a hand. Therefore, we say that this special kind of compound leaf where all the leaflets arise in one spot are digitally compound. Leaf E is the digitally compound leaf of a Dewberry, Rubus sp.

Leaf F is the trifoliate compound leaf of the herb known in both English and Latin as Oxalis.

Leaf G is a compound leaf in which the lower leaflet sections are themselves divided into leaflets. Leaves with leaflets that are themselves divided are referred to as being bipinnately compound. There are even tripinnately compound leaves, but I couldn't find any during my walk.  Leaf G is the bipinnately compound leaf of the Pepper-Vine, Ampelopsis arborea.

Even simple leaves can have lots of interesting ways of being. The above leaves, also picked up right around my home, show a variety of leaf margins.

Leaf-margin A is the crenate margin of the Swamp Cottonwood tree, Populus heterophylla.

Leaf-margin B is the spiny-toothed margin of the American Holly, Ilex opaca.

Leaf-margin C is the entire margin of a Greenbriar, Smilax sp.

Leaf-margin D is the shallowly lobed margin of an immature leaf of the Black Oak, Quercus velutina.

Leaf-margin E is the dentate margin of a wild grapevine, Vitis sp.

Leaf-margin F is the doubly toothed or twice serrated margin of the Eastern Hophornbeam, Ostrya virginiana.

And the real neat thing about leaf variability is that here we've just scratched the surface. We've only considered the normal things leaves do, and there's a whole world out there of other configurations, margin types, sizes, shapes and unexpected permutations, and each manner of being has its own special terms describing it! For example, can you figure out what's going on at the right?

Well, this is a single pinnately compound leaf, about life size, of one of the most common plants right outside my door, a kind of wild vetch, in the bean family. Notice that the leaf's midrib extends beyond the top of the leaf and divides into three slender appendages. These appendages are tendrils. If you  watched the tendrils for several hours you'd realize that each tendril is twisting around veeeeeery slowly, so slowly you can't see it happening. When a tendril touches something, it wraps itself around it and hangs on. This enables the vetch plant to support itself as it grows upward, hanging on to other things around it, usually other plants.

Finally, not only are leaves put together in a real rainbow of configurations, but also they are positioned upon stems and twigs in certain ways. In fact, when you are confronted with a new leaf, a good way to begin your thinking about them is to ask yourself two questions:

  • First, applying the insights gained above, figure out where the leaf is and what's special about how it is put together.
  • Second, notice whether on the stems or twigs one leaf arises at each node, or two, or more. If only one leaf arises, then the leaf is alternate. If two, then opposite. Three or more leaves at a node are said to be whorled.

At first glance, the leaves and stems in the photo above are pretty similar, especially since both are vines (that's Supple-Jack, Berchemia scandens, on the left, and Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica, on the right). However, notice that Supple-Jack on the left has alternate leaves, while Honeysuckle on the right has opposite ones. Can you see it?

Noticing this detail can be very helpful in identification. For instance, in most of eastern North America tree identification is helped when you remember the term "Madcap horse." This term helps you remember eastern North American trees with opposite leaves. "M" in madcap is for maples, "a" is for ash, "d" is for dogwood, "cap" is for Caprifoliaceae (the plant family in which you find viburnums), and "horse" is for the horsechestnut family, which has the buckeyes in it.

Well, it's kind of a clumsy trick, but when you're trying to remember, it's pretty neat.


Article courtesy of Jim Conrad of Backyard Nature.