Leaves come in a variety of shapes. Having a firm grasp of the vocabulary associated with leaf shapes can help you to identify and talk about plants more effectively.
This is a HUGE subject, so, grab yourself a beverage and get comfortable.
When describing leaf shape, some terms refer to the entire leaf, while others refer to specific parts of the leaf, such as the edge, tip, or base. Nearly all the terms are tied closely to the Latin word forms, so you are in luck if foreign language comes easily (or if you happen to already know Latin). Personally, I am not gifted in that particular area. Luckily for all of us, Latin is a pretty reliable language, when it comes to putting pieces of words together to make new words.
Don’t let all these new words scare you off, and don't expect to be able to remember everything. You can always return to this page, or use a field guide, when describing leaf shapes or identifying unknown plants. The important thing is to become familiar with the different ways that leaves are described and categorized.
Leaf and leaflet silhouettes
Leaves are first identified by their overall shape. They can be round, triangular, oval, rectangular, or diamond-shaped:
Some leaves are shaped like a heart, kidney, fan, arrowhead, or spear:
Some leaves are shaped like a teardrop, while others look more like the silhouette of a violin, a spoon, a sickle, or a hand:
The Latin of lobes
Some leaves have protrusions, called lobes, that can be rounded (like your earlobes) or pointed. Lobes can be arranged pinnately (in pairs) or palmately (like a hand). Lobes can be gently waving lines, they can be sharp incisions, or they can fall somewhere in between. These features are usually described as relative to the midrib line. Depending on the type of lobe a leaf might have, descriptive suffixes are added:
All about the base
The way leaves attach to the rest of the plant can also provide clues for identification.
Here’s a tip
At the other end of the leaf, tip shape can also provide clues for identification. Leaf tips can be:
There is a lot of variation in leaf tips:
Take it from the edge
The edge of a leaf is called its margin. Leaf margins provide an easy classification tool, since this trait stays consistent within a species. At the most basic level, leaf margins are:
If the stem attaches to a leaf near the middle, rather than at an edge, it is peltate. [Nasturtium] If it looks as though the stem passes through the middle of the leaf, it is perfoliate. [Miner's lettuce]
You can find lots of online illustrations of leaf shapes, but, for right now, it has stopped raining and hailing and my garden is calling.
How many different leaf shapes can you identify in your garden?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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