Identifying Plants: Leaves

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Have you looked at a tree before? I mean really, really looked?

Before I identified plants for my Master Herbalist Certification Program, a leaf looked like a leaf to me.

And then, course assignments forced me to look closer.

Really, really close.

And, what I saw amazed me.

Suddenly, the world of plants meant something more. Each leaf shouted the name of the remarkably wise Creator, the God who had designed each and every leaf with remarkable precision and diversity. I saw small leaves and big leaves, fuzzy leaves and prickly leaves, smooth-edged leaves and jagged-edged leaves…distinctions I never fully realized, until I looked.

Today, look closely at the leaves surrounding you. They’re fun to study, and they play a huge role in plant identification. If you look closer at these leaf characteristics, you’ll quickly learn how to distinguish a valuable herb from its look-alike cousin.*

Look at these 6 characteristics:

  1. Colors
  2. Shapes
  3. Textures
  4. Edges
  5. Stems
  6. Veins

Looking at a Leaf…Closely

leafcolors
What colors do you see?

Colors

A leaf is green…or is it?

What color do you really see? Is it light green? Dark green? Green with hints of purple, red, or other colors? Look at the colors, color patterns, and color variations on each leaf.

leafshape
What shapes do you see?

Shapes

What shape is the leaf? Is it just one large shape? Does it separate into connected pieces? Is it made from smaller “leaflets” or pieces? Look at the shape of each leaf.

leaftexture
What textures do you feel?

Textures

Is the leaf waxy? Smooth? Fuzzy? Prickly? What does it feel like? Texture can be a good clue, especially if you notice the arrangement of any prickles or thorns. (Whatever you do, don’t test poison ivy. 🙂 )

leafedges
What do the edges (a.k.a. margins) look like?

Edges (Margins)

Look closely at the margins of each leaf. (The edges of a leaf are called “margins” in botany lingo.) Are they smooth? Jagged? If jagged, in what pattern? There are many, many different types of leaf edges.

leafstems
What do the stems look like?

Stems

How do the leaves attach to the stem? In what arrangement? What color is the stem? What shape? What does it feel like? (Does it also have thorns or prickles, for instance?) Look at the stems.

leafveins
What do the veins look like?

Veins

You might need a magnifying glass, but look at the veins. There are many different vein patterns found in creation. Do the veins branch out from a central trunk? Are they opposite of each other? Alternate? Do they follow a visible pattern or not?

leafsummary.jpg
Looking closer at a leaf opens up a new world…

Summary

If you start studying the colors, shapes, textures, stems, and veins of leaves, then you’ve taken the first step toward plant identification. Congratulations!

If you’d like to view some specific examples of different leaf types, search for a “leaf morphology chart” online. These charts are a wonderful visual resource for plant identification and help train your eyes to see plants from a botanist’s perspective.

“The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”–Psalm 19:1-3, NASB

*Note: Please make sure to only harvest and use plants which you have positively identified as safe, and always use caution while identifying and harvesting plants. This post should not be a substitute for professional guidance, training, or detailed plant identification materials. It is simply meant to help you start recognizing the differences between different plants.

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