Fall leaf identification

When I moved to Ohio, my 7th grade science teacher assigned us a fall leaf project: we had to collect and ID about a dozen different leaves.  It was so much fun and the information has stuck with me all these years.  Although I am a zoologist by training, not a botanist, I love knowing more about my natural surroundings.

My husband and I were raking leaves yesterday on a beautiful autumn day, and I spotted some lovely specimens.  Here’s a sampling of some of the trees in our yard, and maybe from your yard, too!

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Sassafras leaves can be confusing because they can look several different ways.  They can have a normal leaf shape (unilobed), or a glove shape (bilobed), or like a trident (trilobed).  The colors are beautiful, ranging from red to orange to yellow, and often a mix in one leaf.

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)


The tulip tree (no relation to tulip flowers) also has a distinctive leaf.  These turn a beautiful golden yellow in fall.






Maples, specifically Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

There are several different kinds of maples in Ohio, and one common iconic one is the red maple.  These trees obviously turn bright red in the fall.  There are usually only 3 lobes on red maple leaves, and they are not deeply divided.  The outer lobes kind of point upward.  

I also found another kind of maple in my yard, which I suspect is a Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii), a hybrid combination of a red maple and a silver maple.  See how the lobes are more deeply divided than the red maple, and it looks like there are 5 lobes instead of 3.  These trees are also sold as Autumn Blaze (a trademarked name) because of their beautiful fall color.  You can see a nice comparison of these 3 maples leaves here.

Oaks, specifically White Oak (Quercus alba) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Oak trees are much less exciting for fall color.  Sometimes they turn yellowy-brown, or reddish-brown.  But mostly just brown.  We have several oaks in  front of our house (the squirrels love our yard!)  White oaks have rounded lobes; I saw lots that were a pretty red color.  Red oaks have pointed lobes that are less deeply divided, but the leaves I found were not as vibrant, being more to the “brown” end of reddish-brown.

I am not as good at telling oak trees apart, so I had to ask the internet for help.  If you want help IDing trees, here’s a great resource: the Oregon State University plant identification page.

See Part 2 of fall leaf identification here.

6 thoughts on “Fall leaf identification

  1. ChangeTherapy July 25, 2020 / 7:19 am

    My kids taking a lot from your photos of leaves and Post. Thanks


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