Surprise! The principal characteristics used to distinguish trees are features of their leaves. Who knew? First and foremost, we have LEAF ARRANGEMENT, which tells us how many leaves are attached at each NODE (i.e., the point along the stem where leaves are attached).

There are three types of leaf arrangement: alternate, opposite, and whorled.

Another leafy distinction has to do with whether or not the leaf consists of a single unbroken blade, or if instead it’s fully and completely divided into separate leaflets. The set of traits is called LEAF COMPLEXITY, and comes in two general types: undivided leaves are termed “simple,” and the divided ones, “compound.” Compound leaves can either be pinnate (leaflets arranged along the leafstalk), palmate (all attached at the same point), trifoliolate (like poison ivy) or twice compound (leaflets themselves divided into sub-leaflets).

leaf complexity

Leaf complexity varies depending on whether leaves are fully and completely divided into leaflets.

(scientific names link to species pages)

 Acer negundo L.   BOXELDER  Sapindaceae  native tree
 Acer platanoides L.   NORWAY MAPLE  Sapindaceae  adventive tree
 Acer rubrum L.   RED MAPLE  Sapindaceae  native tree
 Acer saccharinum L.   SILVER MAPLE  Sapindaceae  native tree
 Acer saccharum Marshall   SUGAR MAPLE  Sapindaceae  native tree
 Aesculus glabra Willd.   OHIO BUCKEYE  Sapindaceae  native tree
 Carya ovata (Miller) K. Koch   SHAGBARK HICKORY  Juglandaceae  native tree
 Cercis canadensis L.   REDBUD  Fabaceae  native sm tree
 Cornus florida L.   FLOWERING DOGWOOD  Cornaceae  native sm tree
 Fraxinus pennsylvanica Marshall   GREEN ASH  Oleaceae  native tree
 Juglans nigra L.   BLACK WALNUT  Juglandaceae  native tree
 Quercus rubra L.   NORTHERN RED OAK  Fagaceae  native tree