A Closer Look at Nature: To Identify a Leaf


Have You Seen This Leaf?

Can you identify this leaf?

While visiting relatives in Western Michigan a couple weeks ago, we spent some time outside after dinner trying to identify the leaf (pictured above) that my husband brought over from a neighboring yard.  There are Quaking Aspens nearby, but those are much smaller. And this leaf didn’t “quake.” We weren’t sure what type of tree the leaf fell from.

So, after I got home I started to investigate.  I started with the Ohio Public Libary Information Network (OPLIN) guide to identifying a tree via the leaf. Down the rabbit hole of leaf identification I descended.  Then I checked the About.com pages about leaves. Then, finally — duh? — I checked a website that identified Michigan trees.

When consulting all the sites, I was amazed at the complexity of tree leaves: narrow/broad, lobed/unlobed, compound/single, and so forth.  This particular leaf with its set of characteristics was just one of the gazillions of variations that Nature  presents in its plant and animal life.  When you really look at something like a leaf, it becomes something other than Just A Leaf

Well, I finally did identify the leaf.  But not after realizing just how many variation of the thing that we call “leaf” there are in the world.

Try an experiment:  Just pick up a leaf on the ground (the greener the better) under a tree you can’t identify.  Go back and try the links above (or others for your particular part of the nation or world) and see what I mean about variation.  You can even try it with the image above.  (I’ve provided the ID information below. So don’t scroll down too far if you don’t what to know the answer.)

THE ANSWER IS BELOW. (Caution: “Spoiler Alert”!)

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Turns out the tree from which this leaf fell is an Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides).  Members of the genus Populus genus are the poplars, aspens, and cottonwoods. I’m assuming the species identifier “deltoides” refers to the Cottonwood leaf’s triangular shape.  Read more about the Eastern Cottonwood from the US Forest Service.

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