The study of leaves applies to annual herbs as well as woody trees, shrubs and vines. Much information about the type of plant can be gathered through actual examinations of how the leaf is shaped. At times, this may lead to correct identification of species, especially among the woody trees and shrubs. In other cases, actual identification may require additional information obtained only by looking at other parts of the plant. In general, studying the shape of oval-shaped leaves can lead to spot identification of many trees and shrubs.
- Skill level:
- Moderately Challenging
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Things you need
- Leaf samples
- Notebook for storing samples
- Pencil and eraser
- Tree identification book
- Handheld magnifying glass
Examine the oval-shaped leaf to see whether it is hard and leathery or soft and flexible. The former properties usually are present on leafy evergreen trees such as the Southern magnolia and live oak, while the latter case is quite prevalent in many types of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. In the United States flowering evergreen trees and shrubs are quite common in the hotter regions like Southern California chaparral forest and the Gulf Coast swamps.
Look at the leaf to see if the veins are parallel or if they meet in a palmate or netlike pattern. This step simply divides the plant into one of two large groupings of plants. Monocots (grasses, orchids, palms and lilies) have parallel veins, and everything else falls into the dicot category. Just about all trees are dicot in nature, but actual species identification from this step is difficult.
Find the point of attachment of the soft petiole of the leaf to the woody twig or branch and determine whether the arrangement is alternate, opposite or whorled. For oval-shaped leaves on woody plants, opposite and alternate attachment are most common, and whorled leaf attachments are present in many herbaceous plants.
Notice whether the leaf is attached in a simple, compound or pinnately compound manner. For example the clump of six leaves in the photograph is considered a compound leaf because all five leaves join the woody twig at the same point. Check Reference 2 for explicit examples of each type.
Examine the exterior edge of the leaf or leaf margin to see if it is smooth, toothed, serrated, dentate, lobed or double-toothed. For visual examples see the diagrams in Reference 4 under leaf margin.
Identify the overall outline or shape of the leaf. An oval leaf can be broken down into whether it is linear, oval, ovate, oblong, obovate, deltoid, cordate, elliptical or lanceolate. All of these shapes can be considered variations of the oval leaf and are clearly displayed in Reference 4.
Combine all the above steps to see if you can identify the plant. Trees will be easier to identify than annual herbs, but at the very least the type of plant can often be narrowed down to a few families of plants from looking at an oval-shaped leaf.
Tips and warnings
- Trees with evergreen leaves live in specific ecological niches, so by studying which of these trees grows where, you will have a head start in identifying plants with evergreen oval-shaped leaves.
- Care should be taken, when examining trees and shrubs with evergreen leaves, especially trees, because many popular varieties may become deciduous, when planted in a colder climate.
- Plant identification by leaf is easier when the specimen is a tree or shrub. When examining herbaceous plants with oval-shaped leaves, the task is more easily accomplished when the flower can also be examined.
- Some trees like the sassafras exhibit leaves with several different shapes, all on the same specimen.
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