To identify an item is to recognize the item and associate it with its appropriate name. Such as, that tan automobile in front of our house is a Honda Accord. Or, that large woody plant in the park is a tree, more specifically a Doug-fir. Identifying a landscape or garden plant requires recognizing the plant by one or more characteristics, such as size, form, leaf shape, flower color, odor, etc., and linking that recognition with a name, either a common or so-called scientific name. Accurate identification of a cultivated plant can be very helpful in knowing how it grows (e.g., size shape, texture, etc.) as well as how to care and protect it from pests and diseases.
First let’s look at some common characteristics of plants that are useful in identifying them. Now if this was a botany class dealing with plant systematics, the field of study concerned with identification, naming, classification, and evolution of plants, we would spend a good deal of time on the reproductive parts of plants, i.e., mostly the various parts of the flower, i.e., stamen, ovary, stigma, etc. Structural similarity of reproductive parts is an important means by which plants are categorized, grouped, named, and hence identified. However, with many horticultural plants, especially woody plants, we may have to make an identity without regard to flowers, for often flowers are not present or are very small, and other characteristics may be more obvious. Some plants characteristics are so obvious or unique that we can recognize them without a detailed examination of the plant. Similarly, we can probably all immediately recognize a Volkswagen Beetle among a group of cars in a parking lot.
So what are some plant characteristics that can be used to identify plants?
Leaves are often the basis for identifying plants since they are so easily observed. They usually consist of two parts,
- the blade, the wide or more obvious part of a leaf,
- and the “stalk” or petiole by which the blade is attached to the stem. There is a bud at the point where the petiole attaches to the stem [see Sitka alder, Alnus viridis subsp. sinuata, leaf and buds]. (Use your browser's Back button to return to this page.)
First be aware that all the leaves on a given plant do not have the same size or even appearance [Betula, leaf size comparison]. They may vary in size, color, and even shape [Sassafras albidum, leaves, fall] and [Malus sargentii, leaves, fall]; those that receive much sun may look different from those in heavy shade. So when trying to determine the identity of a plant by its leaves, make sure you examine many leaves and attempt to determine what might be considered “typical” leaf characteristics. Although basketball players may vary in size, shape, and color, a “typical” physical characteristic of a basketball player often is “tallness”.
Broad vs. narrow leaves
Leaves can be divided into categories of broad and narrow.
- Broad leaves have a wide blade, often with a visible network of veins.
Northern Catalpa, [Catalpa speciosa, leaves and flowers].
Familiar examples of plants with broad leaves are apple (Malus), oak (Quercus), maple ( Acer), etc.
- Narrow leaves are slender, without a wide blade, these leaves are often referred to as “needle” or “scale-like”.
Conifers, such as pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea) and juniper (Juniperus), have narrow leaves, some have needles
Norway Spruce, [Picea abies, branch, needles]
Deodar Cedar and Blue Atlas Cedar, [Cedrus deodara and Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’, branch comparison]
and others have scale-like leaves,
Incense Cedar, [Calocedrus decurrens, branchlets with scale-like leaves
Western Red Cedar, [Thuja plicata, branchlets with scale-like leaves].
The pattern by which leaves are attached to a stem or twig is also a useful characteristic in plant identification. There are two large groups, alternate and opposite patterns, and a third less common pattern, whorled.
- Alternate leaves have only a single leaf attached at one location (a node) on a stem, often the leaves alternate from one side to the other as one moves along the stem, or they may be in a spiral pattern around the stem.
Eastern Redbud, [Cercis canadensis, leaves]
American Elm, [Ulmus americana, leafy shoot]
Alternate leaves are common in the following genera: Alnus (alder), Crataegus (hawthorn), Cotoneaster, Magnolia, Prunus, Quercus (oak), and Rubus.
- Opposite leaves refer to two leaves being attached at the same location (a node) on a stem, but opposite one another, that is, on either side of the stem
Common Boxwood, [Buxus sempervirens, leafy shoot]
Katsuratree, [Cercidiphyllum japonicum, leaves]
Dawn Redwood, [Metasequoia glyptostroboides, needles, comparison].
Opposite leaves are common in the following genera: Buxus (boxwood), Cornus (dogwood), Euonymus, Fraxinus (ash), Lonicera and Viburnum. All maples (Acer) have opposite leaves.
- Sometimes more than two leaves arise from the same location (node) on a twig, the leaves may radiate from the twig like the spokes on wheel, this is called a whorled arrangement.
Redvein Enkianthus, [Enkianthus campanulatus, shoots].
- Occasionally a given plant may exhibit more than a single type of leaf arrangement. For example in Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) the lower leaves of a shoot may have an opposite leaf arrangement, but toward the end of the shoot the leaves may be alternate or even whorled [Lagerstroemia indica, shoot].
Simple and compound leaves
Leaves may have a single undivided blade or a blade that is divided into parts.
- Simple leaves have only one leaf blade, with or without a stalk or petiole.
White Alder, [Alnus rhombifolia , leafy shoot]
Red Maple, [Acer rubrum, shoot, leaves]
Common Myrtle, [Myrtus communus, leaf]
- Compound leaves have more than one blade and may have a complex leaf stalk structure.
Paperbark Maple, [Acer griseum, leaves]
Thornless Honeylocust, [Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis, leaves].
There are several different types of compound leaves, the common ones are:
- Palmately compound leaves have three or more leaflets attached at the end of the stalk (petiole) (like fingers on our hands).
Ohio Buckeye, [Aesculus glabra, leaf]
Chaste Tree, [Vitex agnus-castus, leaf].
- Pinnately compound leaves have a number of leaflets attached along a central stalk.
American Yellowwood, [Cladrastis kentukea, leaf]
Tree of Heaven, [Alilanthus altissimus, leaf].
They can also be:
- double pinnately (bipinnately) compound,
Silk Tree, [Albizia julibrissin, leaf]
Kentucky Coffeetree, [Gymnocladus dioicus, leaf] or
- triple pinnately (tripinnately) compound.
Heavenly Bamboo, [Nandina domestica, leaf].
- leaves have a bud at the base of the stalk (petiole), e.g., Paperbark Birch, [Betula papyrifera, shoot, leaves], whereas
- leaflets do not, e.g., American Yellowwood, [Cladrastis kentukea, leaf].
It is not always easy to find the bud at the base of a petiole, it may not be visible early in the growing seaon and sometimes a mature bud is “hidden”, such as being enclosed by the petiole base, such as in
Fragrant Snowbell, [Styrax obassia, leaf petiole and enclosed bud]
London Planetree, [Platanus × acerifolia, petiole and bud]
American Yellowwood, [Cladrastis kentukea, leaf stalk and bud, fall].
Look at the entire shoot to determine what is a leaf, don’t just look at the end of a branch. Since a bud is at the base of each leaf, it is possible to determine the leaf arrangement (i.e., alternate, opposite, etc.) of a deciduous plant in winter by looking at the arrangement of buds on a bare twig, e.g., Red Maple, shorwrs an opposite arrangemremt, [Acer rubrum, shoot branches and buds, winter].
Leaves may be lobed or not lobed. A lobe may be defined as a curved or rounded projection. With leaves there is no clear distinction between shallow lobes and deep teeth. A main vein is often visible in a lobe, this may not occur in teeth.
Hedge Maple, [Acer campestre, leaves and fruit]
Amur Maple, [Acer ginnala, leaves and fruit]
Bigleaf Maple, [Acer macrophyllum, leaf, fall]
Oregon White Oak, [Quercus garryana, leaf]
Leaves without lobes:
Pacific Serviceberry, [Amelanchier alnifolia, leaves, fall]
Western Catalpa, [Catalpa speciosa, leaves, fall]
Eastern Redbud, [Cercis canadensis, leaf].
Another important leaf characteristic for plant identification is the edge or margin of a leaf or leaflet. Leaves have either smooth edges, called entire, or small notches or “teeth” along the margin.
- Entire (smooth):
White Forsythia, [Abeliophyllum distichum, leaves]
Tree of Heaven, [Ailanthus altissima, leaflets] (mostly entire, but with a few coarse teeth).
Toothed: Teeth may occur at the base of a leaf, at the tip, or along the whole margin. The teeth may vary in number and size.
- Toothed, coarsely, may be difficult to distinguish from lobed, e.g., Paperbark Maple, [Acer griseum, leaves and fruit]
- Toothed, doubly, Sitka Alder, [Alnus viridis subsp. sinuata, leaf margin, surface]
Serrate: saw toothed, teeth pointing forward
Japanese Zelkova, [Zelkova serrata, leafy shoot]
Strawberry Tree, [Arbutus unedo, leaves]
- Doubly serrate, American Elm, [Ulmus americana, leaf margin and tip]
- Spiny-serrate, Wintergreen Barberry, [Berberis julianae, leaf]
- Single serrate;
- Dentate: having marginal teeth whose apices are perpendicular to the margin and do not point forward, Crimson Glory Vine, [ Vitis coignetiae, leaf]
Other leaf characteristics to consider, especially if using a botanical key.
- over all shape (e.g., elliptic, lanceolate, linear, obovate, oblong, etc.)
- shape of base (cuneate [wedge shaped], cordate, rounded, etc.)
- shape of apex (abrupt, acuminate, acute, emarginate, mucronate, etc.)
- pattern of veination (e.g., parallel, net-veined, etc.)
- surface properties (e.g., pubescent, glabrous [smooth])
- odor when crushed (strong, foul, absent, etc.)
Non-leaf characteristics are also useful in attempting to identify woody plants, these include:
- flower type, color, and showiness
- fruit type, shape, and color when ripe.
Some characteristics of narrow leaf plants: Two groups, scale-like and needle leaves.
- Scale-like leaves are usually small, short and overlap; they are common in several genera of conifers including junipers (Juniperus), falscypress (Chamaecyparis) and arborvitae (Thuja), for example, Arborvitae and Western Red Cedar (T. plicata) , [Thuja, branchlets, comparison]. Often scale-like leaves are displayed as two, three or four per node. A hand lens or low power microscope is often necessary to make this determination.
Differences in scale-leaves can be used in distinguishing the following "cedars" native to Oregon (none of which are true Cedars, i.e., Cedrus).
- Incense Cedar [Calocedrus decurrens, leaves]. Note that 4 leaves appear at the same note, 2 facial (face) and 2 lateral (side), the outline of the pair of lateral leaves trace a "flueted wine glass".
- Port Orford Cedar [Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, leaves]. Leaves are closely pressed in opposite pairs. The lateral leaves are larger than the facial leaves, where the leaves meet on the underside of a branchlet a white waxy line is evident, it appears as an "X" marking. Also note a single dot, a resin gland, is evident on each facial leaf (this may require a hand lens).
- Western Red Cedar [Thuja plicata, leaves]. Note: 4 leaves of similar size (2 facial and 2 lateral) appear at a node, the waxy surface markings on the underside of a branchlet are thought to resemble a "butterfly" or a "bow-tie".
- Yellow or Alaska Cedar [Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, leaves]. Leaves are closely pressed in opposite pairs, (facial pair and lateral pair), the 2 leaves at a given node are of similar size, no waxy marking is evident were the leaves meet.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of the four "cedars" native to Oregon.
- The scale leaves of the native Western Juniper [Juniperus occidentalis, branchlets, leaves] differ markedly from the above "cedar" trees.
Needle leaves, also common in conifers, they are attached to twigs in several ways:
attached directly to the twig, for example,
- Coastal Redwood [Sequoia sempervirens, needles, underside]
- True firs, Abies, [Abies, needles and leaf scars (Abies procera)].
attached via a peg-like stalk, for example,
- Spruce, Picea, [Picea, needles and needle "pegs"]
- attached directly to the twig, for example,
- Bundles - grouped in bundles that are attached to the twig; often there are 2, 3, or 5 leaves per bundle. A given tree usually has the same number of needles per bundle. Bundles are common in pine:
2 needles/bundle, Austrian Pine, [Pinus nigra, needles and mature cones]
3 needles/bundle, Ponderosa Pine, [Pinus ponderosa, needles and mature cone]
5 needles/bundle, Western White Pine, [Pinus monticola, needles]
- Clusters - usually more than 5, can be 30 or more, for example,
Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara) [Cedrus deodara, needle cluster] and
Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'), [Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca', needle cluster].
Fir flat needles are friendly to the touch, usually, but [Spanish Fir is sharp pointed]
Spruce sharp , square (needles in cross-section)
Pine in packages (needles in groups of 2, 3, 5, rarely one)
Cope, E.A. Muenscher’s Key to Woody Plants: An Expanded Guide to Native and Cultivated Species. 2001. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
Partyka, R.E., J.W. Rimelspach, B.G. Joyner, and S.A. Carver. 1980. Woody Ornamentals: Plants and Problems. ChemLawn Corp. Columbus, Ohio.