In botany, a leaf is an above-ground plant organ specialized for photosynthesis. For this purpose, a leaf is typically flat (laminar) and thin, to expose the cells containing chloroplast (chlorenchyma tissue, a type of parenchyma) to light over a broad area, and to allow light to penetrate fully into the tissues. Leaves are also the sites in most plants where respiration, transpiration, and guttation take place. Leaves can store food and water, and are modified in some plants for other purposes. The comparable structures of ferns are correctly referred to as fronds. Leaves are prominent in the human diet as leaf vegetables.
A structurally complete leaf of an angiosperm consists of a petiole (leaf stem), a lamina (leaf blade), and stipules (small processes located to either side of the base of the petiole). The point at which the petiole attaches to the stem is called the leaf axil. Not every species produces leaves with all of these structural parts. In some species, paired stipules are not obvious or are absent altogether. A petiole may be absent, or the blade may not be laminar (flattened). The tremendous variety shown in leaf structure (anatomy) from species to species is presented in detail below under Leaf morphology. After a period of time, deciduous trees shead their leaves. These leaves decompose
A leaf is considered to be a plant organ, typically consisting of the following tissues:
- An epidermis that covers the upper and lower surfaces
- An interior chlorenchyma called the mesophyll
- An arrangement of veins (the vascular tissue).
The epidermis is the outer multi-layered group of cells covering the leaf. It forms the boundary between the plant and the external world. The epidermis serves several functions: protection against water loss, regulation of gas exchange, secretion of metabolic compounds, and (in some species) absorption of water. Most leaves show dorsoventral anatomy: the upper (adaxial) and lower (abaxial) surfaces have somewhat different construction and may serve different functions.
The epidermis is usually transparent (epidermal cells lack chloroplasts) and coated on the outer side with a waxy cuticle that prevents water loss. The cuticle may be thinner on the lower epidermis than on the upper epidermis, and is thicker on leaves from dry climates as compared with those from wet climates.
The epidermis tissue includes several differentiated cell types: epidermal cells, guard cells, subsidiary cells, and epidermal hairs (trichomes). The epidermal cells are the most numerous, largest, and least specialized. These are typically more elongated in the leaves of monocots than in those of dicots.
The epidermis is covered with pores called stomata, part of a stoma complex consisting of a pore surrounded on each side by chloroplast-containing guard cells, and two to four subsidiary cells that lack chloroplasts. The stoma complex regulates the exchange of gases and water vapor between the outside air and the interior of the leaf. Typically, the stomata are more numerous over the abaxial (lower) epidermis than the adaxial (upper) epidermis.
Most of the interior of the leaf between the upper and lower layers of epidermis is a parenchyma (ground tissue) or chlorenchyma tissue called the mesophyll (Greek for "middle leaf"). This assimilation tissue is the primary location of photosynthesis in the plant. The products of photosynthesis are called "assimilates".
In ferns and most flowering plants the mesophyll is divided into two layers:
- An upper palisade layer of tightly packed, vertically elongated cells, one to two cells thick, directly beneath the adaxial epidermis. Its cells contain many more chloroplasts than the spongy layer. These long cylindrical cells are regularly arranged in one to five rows. Cylindrical cells, with the chloroplasts close to the walls of the cell, can take optimal advantage of light. The slight separation of the cells provides maximum absorption of carbon dioxide. This separation must be minimal to afford capillary action for water distribution. In order to adapt to their different environment (such as sun or shade), plants had to adapt this structure to obtain optimal result. Sun leaves have a multi-layered palisade layer, while shade leaves or older leaves closer to the soil, are single-layered.
- Beneath the palisade layer is the spongy layer. The cells of the spongy layer are more rounded and not so tightly packed. There are large intercellular air spaces. These cells contain fewer chloroplasts than those of the palisade layer.
The pores or stomata of the epidermis open into substomatal chambers, connecting to air spaces between the spongy layer cells.
These two different layers of the mesophyll are absent in many aquatic and marsh plants. Even an epidermis and a mesophyll may be lacking. Instead for their gaseous exchanges they use a homogeneous aerenchyma (thin-walled cells separated by large gas-filled spaces). Their stomata are situated at the upper surface.
Leaves in temperate, boreal, and seasonally dry zones may be seasonally deciduous (falling off or dying for the inclement season). This mechanism to shed leaves is called abscission. After the leaf is shed, a leaf scar develops on the twig. In cold autumns they sometimes change color, and turn yellow, bright orange or red as various accessory pigments (carotenoids and anthocyanins) are revealed when the tree responds to cold and reduced sunlight by curtailing chlorophyll production.
The veins are the vascular tissue of the leaf and are located in the spongy layer of the mesophyll. They are typical examples of pattern formation through ramification. The pattern of the veins is called venation.
The veins are made up of:
- xylem, which brings water from the roots into the leaf.
- phloem, which usually moves sap out, the latter containing the glucose produced by photosynthesis in the leaf.
The xylem typically lies over the phloem. Both are embedded in a dense parenchyma tissue, called "pith", with usually some structural collenchyma tissue present.
External leaf characteristics (such as shape, margin, hairs, etc.) are important for identifying plant species, and botanists have developed a rich terminology for describing leaf characteristics. These structures are a part of what makes leaves determinant, they grow and achieve a specific pattern and shape, then stop. Other plant parts like stems or roots are non-determinant, and will usually continue to grow as long as they have the resources to do so.
Leaves may be classified in many different ways, and the type is usually characteristic of a species, although some species produce more than one type of leaf. The terminology associated with describing leaf morphology is presented (with illustrations) at Wikibooks.
Basic leaf types
- Ferns have fronds.
- Conifer leaves are typically needle-, awl-, or scale-shaped
- Angiosperm (flowering plant) leaves: the standard form includes stipules, a petiole, and a lamina.
- Lycophytes have microphyll leaves.
- Sheath leaves (type found in most grasses).
- Other specialized leaves (such as those of Nepenthes)
Arrangement on the stem
As a stem grows, leaves tend to appear arranged around the stem in a way that optimizes yield of light. In essence, leaves come off the stem in a helix pattern, either clockwise or counterclockwise, with (depending upon the species) the same angle of divergence. There is a regularity in these angles and they follow the numbers in a Fibonacci sequence: 1/2, 2/3, 3/5, 5/8, 8/13, 13/21, 21/34, 34/55, 55/89. This series tends to a limit of 360° x 34/89 = 137.52 or 137° 30', an angle known mathematically as the golden angle. In the series, the numerator gives the number of complete turns or "gyres" until a leaf arrives at the initial position. The denominator gives the number of leaves in the arrangement. This can be demonstrated by the following:
- alternate leaves have an angle of 180° (or 1/2)
- 120° (or 1/3) : three leaves in one circle
- 144° (or 2/5) : five leaves in two gyres
- 135° (or 3/8) : eight leaves in three gyres.
The fact that an arrangement of anything in nature can be described by a mathematical formula is not in itself mysterious. Mathematics are the science of discovering numerical relationships and applying formulae to these relationships. The formulae themselves can provide clues to the underlying physiological processes that, in this case, determine where the next leaf bud will form in the elongating stem. However, different terms are usually used to describe leaf placement:
- Alternate — leaf attachments singular at nodes, and leaves alternate direction, to a greater or lesser degree, along the stem.
- Opposite — leaf attachments paired at each node; decussate if, as typical, each successive pair is rotated 90° going along the stem; or distichous if not rotated, but two-ranked (in the same plane).
- Whorled — three or more leaves attach at each point or node on the stem. As with opposite leaves, successive whorls may or may not be decussate, rotated by half the angle between the leaves in the whorl (i.e., successive whorls of three rotated 60°, whorls of four rotated 45°, etc). Opposite leaves may appear whorled near the tip of the stem.
- Rosulate — leaves form a rosette
Divisions of the lamina (blade)
Two basic forms of leaves can be described considering the way the blade is divided. A simple leaf has an undivided blade. However, the leaf shape may be formed of lobes, but the gaps between lobes do not reach to the main vein. A compound leaf has a fully subdivided blade, each leaflet of the blade separated along a main or secondary vein. Because each leaflet can appear to be a simple leaf, it is important to recognize where the petiole occurs to identify a compound leaf. Compound leaves are a characteristic of some families of higher plants, such as the Fabaceae. The middle vein of a compound leaf or a frond, when it is present, is called a rachis.
- Palmately compound leaves have the leaflets radiating from the end of the petiole, like fingers off the palm of a hand, e.g. Cannabis (hemp) and Aesculus (buckeyes).
- Pinnately compound leaves have the leaflets arranged along the main or mid-vein.
- Bipinnately compound leaves are twice divided: the leaflets are arranged along a secondary vein that is one of several branching off the rachis. Each leaflet is called a "pinnule". The pinnules on one secondary vein are called "pinna"; e.g. Albizia (silk tree).
- trifoliate: a pinnate leaf with just three leaflets, e.g. Trifolium (clover), Laburnum (laburnum).
- pinnatifid: pinnately dissected to the midrib, but with the leaflets not entirely separate, e.g. Polypodium, some Sorbus (whitebeams).
Characteristics of the petiole
Petiolated leaves have a petiole. Sessile leaves do not: the blade attaches directly to the stem. In clasping or decurrent leaves, the blade partially or wholly surrounds the stem, often giving the impression that the shoot grows through the leaf. When this is actually the case, the leaves are called "perfoliate", such as in Claytonia perfoliata. In peltate leaves, the petiole attaches to the blade inside from the blade margin.
In some Acacia species, such as the Koa Tree (Acacia koa), the petioles are expanded or broadened and function like leaf blades; these are called phyllodes. There may or may not be normal pinnate leaves at the tip of the phyllode.
A stipule, present on the leaves of many dicotyledons, is an appendage on each side at the base of the petiole resembling a small leaf. Stipules may be lasting and not be shed (a stipulate leaf, such as in roses and beans), or be shed as the leaf expands, leaving a stipule scar on the twig (an exstipulate leaf).
- The situation, arrangement, and structure of the stipules is called the "stipulation".
Venation (arrangement of the veins)
There are two subtypes of venation, craspedodromous, where the major veins stretch up to the margin of the leaf, and camptodromous, when major veins come close to the margin, but bend before they get to it.
- Feather-veined, reticulate — the veins arise pinnately from a single mid-vein and subdivide into veinlets. These, in turn, form a complicated network. This type of venation is typical for dicotyledons.
- Pinnate-netted, penniribbed, penninerved, penniveined; the leaf has usually one main vein (called the mid-vein), with veinlets, smaller veins branching off laterally, usually somewhat parallel to each other; eg Malus (apples).
- Three main veins originate from the base of the lamina, as in Ceanothus.
- Palmate-netted, palmate-veined, fan-veined; several main veins diverge from near the leaf base where the petiole attaches, and radiate toward the edge of the leaf; e.g. most Acer (maples).
- Parallel-veined, parallel-ribbed, parallel-nerved, penniparallel — veins run parallel most the length of the leaf, from the base to the apex. Commissural veins (small veins) connect the major parallel veins. Typical for most monocotyledons, such as grasses.
- Dichotomous — There are no dominant bundles, with the veins forking regularly by pairs; found in Ginkgo and some pteridophytes.
Leaf morphology changes within a single plant
- Homoblasty - Characteristic in which a plant has small changes in leaf size, shape, and growth habit between juvenile and adult stages.
- Heteroblasty - Charactistic in which a plant has marked changes in leaf size, shape, and growth habit between juvenile and adult stages.
See also Leaf shape
The leaf margin is characteristic for a genus and aids in determining the species.
- entire: even; with a smooth margin; without toothing
- ciliate: fringed with hairs
- crenate: wavy-toothed; dentate with rounded teeth, such as Fagus (beech)
- dentate: toothed, such as Castanea (chestnut)
- coarse-toothed: with large teeth
- glandular toothed: with teeth that bear glands.
- denticulate: finely toothed
- doubly toothed: each tooth bearing smaller teeth, such as Ulmus (elm)
- lobate: indented, with the indentations not reaching to the center, such as many Quercus (oaks)
- palmately lobed: indented with the indentations reaching to the center, such as Humulus (hop).
- serrate: saw-toothed with asymmetrical teeth pointing forward, such as Urtica (nettle)
- serrulate: finely serrate
- sinuate: with deep, wave-like indentations; coarsely crenate, such as many Rumex (docks)
- spiny: with stiff, sharp points, such as some Ilex (hollies) and Cirsium (thistles).
Tip of the leaf
- acuminate: long-pointed, prolonged into a narrow, tapering point in a concave manner.
- acute: ending in a sharp, but not prolonged point
- cuspidate: with a sharp, elongated, rigid tip; tipped with a cusp.
- emarginate: indented, with a shallow notch at the tip.
- mucronate: abruptly tipped with a small short point, as a continuation of the midrib; tipped with a mucro.
- mucronulate: mucronate, but with a smaller spine.
- obcordate: inversely heart-shaped, deeply notched at the top.
- obtuse: rounded or blunt
- truncate: ending abruptly with a flat end, that looks cut off.
Base of the leaf
- acuminate: coming to a sharp, narrow, prolonged point.
- acute: coming to a sharp, but not prolonged point.
- auriculate: ear-shaped
- cordate: heart-shaped with the norch away from the stem.
- cuneate: wedge-shaped.
- hastate: shaped like an halberd and with the basal lobes pointing outward.
- oblique: slanting.
- reniform: kidney-shaped but rounder and broader than long.
- rounded: curving shape.
- sagittate: shaped like an arrowhead and with the acute basal lobes pointing downward.
- truncate: ending abruptly with a flat end, that looks cut off.
Surface of the leaf
The surface of a leaf can be described by several botanical terms:
- farinose: bearing farina; mealy, covered with a waxy, whitish powder.
- glabrous: smooth, not hairy.
- glaucous: with a whitish bloom; covered with a very fine, bluish-white powder.
- glutinous: sticky, viscid.
- papillate, papillose: bearing papillae (minute, nipple-shaped protuberances).
- pubescent: covered with erect hairs (especially soft and short ones)
- punctate: marked with dots; dotted with depressions or with translucent glands or colored dots.
- rugose: deeply wrinkled; with veins clearly visible.
- scurfy: covered with tiny, broad scalelike particles.
- tuberculate: covered with tubercles; covered with warty prominences.
- verrucose: warted, with warty outgrowths.
- viscid, viscous: covered with thick, sticky secretions.
"Hairs" on plants are properly called trichomes. Leaves can show several degrees of hairiness. The meaning of several of the following terms can overlap.
- glabrous: no hairs of any kind present.
- arachnoid, arachnose: with many fine, entangled hairs giving a cobwebby appearance.
- barbellate: with finely barbed hairs (barbellae).
- bearded: with long, stiff hairs.
- bristly: with stiff hair-like prickles.
- canescent: hoary with dense grayish-white pubescence.
- ciliate: marginally fringed with short hairs (cilia).
- ciliolate: minutely ciliate.
- floccose: with flocks of soft, woolly hairs, which tend to rub off.
- glandular: with a gland at the tip of the hair.
- hirsute: with rather rough or stiff hairs.
- hispid: with rigid, bristly hairs.
- hispidulous: minutely hispid.
- hoary: with a fine, close grayish-white pubescence.
- lanate, lanose: with woolly hairs.
- pilose: with soft, clearly separated hairs.
- puberulent, puberulous: with fine, minute hairs.
- pubescent: with soft, short and erect hairs.
- scabrous, scabrid: rough to the touch
- sericeous: silky appearance through fine, straight and appressed (lying close and flat) hairs.
- silky: with adpressed, soft and straight pubescence.
- stellate, stelliform: with star-shaped hairs.
- strigose: with appressed, sharp, straight and stiff hairs.
- tomentose: densely pubescent with matted, soft white woolly hairs.
- cano-tomentose: between canescent and tomentose
- felted-tomentose: woolly and matted with curly hairs.
- villous: with long and soft hairs, usually curved.
- woolly: with long, soft and tortuous or matted hairs.
In the course of evolution, leaves adapted to different environments in the following ways:
- A certain surface structure avoids moistening by rain and contaminations (Lotus effect).
- Sliced leaves reduce wind resistance.
- Hairs on the leaf surface trap humidity in dry climates and creates a large boundary layer and reduces water loss.
- Waxy leaf surfaces reduce water loss.
- Shiny leaves deflect the sun's rays.
- Reductions of leaf sizes accompanied by a transfer of the photosynthetic functions to the stems reduces water loss.
- In more or less opaque or buried in the soil leaves translucent windows filter the light before the photosynthetis takes place at the inner leaf surfaces (e.g. Fenestraria).
- Thicker leaves store water (leaf succulents).
- Aromatic oils, poisons or pheromones produced by leaf borne glands deter herbivores (e.g. eucalypts).
- Inclusions of crystalline minerals deters herbivores.
- A transformation into petals attracts pollinators.
- A transformation into spines protects the plants (e.g. cactus).
- A transformation into insect traps helps feeding the plants (carnivorous plants).
- A transformation into bulbs helps storing food and water (e.g. onion).
- A transformation into tendrils allow the plant to climb (e.g. pea).
- A transformation into bracts and pseudanthia (false flowers) replaces normal flower structures if the true flowers are extremely reduced (e.g. Spurges).