Design ID Guide: Creating with Leaf and Tree Species

I studied plant geography in college. One of my favorite courses was the geography of North American plants, which included a hefty serving of tree identification. Since then, I can barely go on a walk without the urge to identify every tree that I walk under. I also have a love for tree and leaf-themed items on Etsy. Sometimes when searching for handmade items, I come across a lot of mis-identified species (oak leaves tagged as maples; acorns grouped with sycamore leaves, etc).

As a result, I have created a guide for creators wishing to design items featuring trees and leaves. Perhaps you have seen a leaf or a type of tree, but don't know what to call it; or, perhaps you are trying to search for a particular type of tree-themed item, but don't know what the particular type you have in mind is called.

Below I have broken the guide down into categories:
  • Deciduous trees by leaf shape 
  • Deciduous tree seeds (most common)
  • Deciduous tree bark (most common)
  • Coniferous trees by needle type
  • Coniferous trees by overall tree shape (most common)
Then, I also found a bunch of leaf and tree identification tools, with links.

Deciduous Trees

Oak (Quercus)

Red Oak can also look like this:

 The thing to remember about Oak leaves:
  • Oak leaves tend to have lobes
  • They tend to have large gaps between the lobes
  • Oak leaf lobes can be serrated or smooth
  • They can have many lobes (20) or few lobes (5)
  • They tend to be the last leaves to fall in the Autumn, and they don't decompose well in the winter
  • Oak leaves tend to turn brown in the Autumn very quickly
  • Oak leaves tend to turn mostly red or brown in the Autumn
Maple (Acer) Leaves
Maple leaves tend to be the second-most common leaf used in design, after oak leaves. Common North American maple species include: Red Maple, Silver Maple, Black Maple, and Sugar Maple.

Some tips to tell Maple leaves and Oak leaves apart:

Maple leaves tend to be wider/fuller at the bottom of the leaf, by the stem, and oak leaves tend to be wider/fuller at the top or middle of the leaf, and taper down towards the stem.
Maple leaves will be found with their seed pods ("helicopters"), while oak leaves will be found near acorns.

Maple leaves, like oak leaves, are lobed, and have serrated or smooth lobes. The number of lobes also varies from species to species.

Maple leaves will turn all different colors in the Autumn. Maple leaves will fall off relatively quickly, and decompose easily.

Other common North American deciduous tree species (P.S. I'm not using the correct scientific names for the leaf shapes because it's not common vocabulary and I want to keep it simple!)
American Basswood (spear-shaped; no lobes; serrated; non-symmetrical vein pattern)

American Elm (ovalesque; serrated edges; no lobes; symmetrical vein pattern, non-alternating veins)
American Sycamore (lobed; serrated edges; non-symmetrical vein pattern)
Balsam Poplar (spear-shaped; no lobes; serrated edges; non-symmetrical vein pattern)
Beech (no lobes; alternating veins (non-symmetrical); serrated edges)

Box Elder (lobes; symmetrical, non-alternating vein pattern)
Eastern Cottonwood (triangle/spear-shaped; serrated edges)

Ginkgo (Fan-shaped; veins fan out from base of leaf; non-symmetrical)

Paper Birch (spear-shaped; alternating, non-symmetrical veins; double serrated edges)

Quaking Aspen (no lobes; spear-shaped; symmetrical or non-alternating veins; serrated edges)

Shagbark Hickory (no lobes; symmetrical, non-alternating veins)

Sweetgum (Lobes; serrated edges; alternating, non-symmetrical vein pattern)

Tulip Tree (lobed; symmetrical vein pattern; smooth edges)
White Ash (smallish leaves; symmetrical vein pattern; no lobes; smoothly serrated edges)

Black Cherry (no lobes; spear-shaped; serrated edges; alternating, non-symmetrical vein pattern)

Notable Seeds
Some commonly-used-in-design deciduous seeds include:

Sycamore seed balls (photo by Robert Lz)

Deciduous Trees by Bark

Beech tree bark - silvery, very smooth

Maple tree bark - a little flakier than beech; not as thick and hearty as oak.

Oak tree bark. This is an extreme example, used to show how thick oak bark can be. Oak bark is usually a lot thicker than maple bark (photo by Odaleigh)

White/Paper Birch bark - very famous bark - these tall, skinny white trees grow well in northern, cooler climates

Shagbark Hickory - very flaky, shaggy bark; thin bark pieces

Coniferous Trees 

(keep their leaves (broadleaf or needle leaf) all year long

Species of Pine usually have the long, thin needles in clumps of 2, 3, 4, or 5 needles:

Fir and spruce (aka Christmas Trees!) have the shorter, thicker needles:

Differences in overall shape between some common needle leaf trees:

Tree identification tool.
Learn more about leaf and tree parts.
Learn which trees turn which color in the Autumn.
Learn more about particular species of trees.
Tree leaf identification quizzes.
Tree identification animation


  1. I took years of biology which included botany and a some tree identification in college... but the only thing I can reliably identify is the blue spruce. lol Great compilation of info you've put together!

  2. What a lovely compilation! I've seen this puzzle before - so sweet!

  3. Being a tree- lover I felt lost as I don't know many North American trees since I come from a different part of the world. I hope this site will help me a lot.

  4. love this post, no wonder it's poplar.....sorry, I couldn't resist. ;)


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