Deciduous Trees

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 What Is a Deciduous Tree?

Trees are commonly discussed in two broad categories: conifers and deciduous trees. A better description might be evergreen and deciduous. 

Deciduous trees shed their leaves at some point in the year, every year. After a period of dormancy over winter, the tree grows new leaves. 

Not all trees that have leaves are deciduous. Some broadleaf trees in warmer climates keep their leaves through the winter, like many types of magnolias.

Every autumn we see the brilliant red and orange fall colors of the maples, a common genus of deciduous trees throughout most of the United States.

An evergreen tree will keep its foliage, whether leaves or needles, for more than one growing season before replacing them. Pines, spruces, firs, and cedars are all evergreen. The sprawling live oaks (Quercus virginiana) of the Southeast are an example of an evergreen tree with leaves instead of needles.

Deciduous Tree Leaves

Leaves on deciduous trees come in several arrangements and as many shapes as there are trees. They all share the same function of converting carbon dioxide and water into sugar using the sun’s energy. 

Tree leaves can take many shapes and are often the primary way people identify a tree. They can be lobed, round, have serrated edges, or smooth. Excellent field guides are available if leaf shape is something you wish to learn more about.

Arrangement refers to how the leaves or leaf blades grow on the tree and are attached. 

Simple leaves are single leaf blades attached directly to the twig by a stem called a petiole. Maples, oaks, and poplars have simple leaves.

Compound leaves have multiple leaf blades attached to a central extension of the petiole called a rachis. Ash, walnut, hickory, and locust are examples of trees with compound leaves. 

Why Do Deciduous Trees Lose Their Leaves in the Fall?

Deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall to conserve energy and water. In the northern hemisphere, deciduous trees will retract nutrients from their leaves and then shed them. The tree releases plant hormones that cause the leaf attachments to be severed, and the leaf drops. Leaves of deciduous trees are not usually adapted to survive cold freezing temperatures.

Some trees in other parts of the world drop their leaves during seasonal dry spells to reduce water loss, even though the temperatures are not cold. 

The spectacular colors of some autumn leaves before they fall are caused mainly by the breakdown of the chlorophyll molecules that give leaves their green color. Once the “green” is gone, other colors are revealed.

Types of Deciduous Trees

Deciduous trees can be split into traditional forest trees and ornamental or fruit trees, often hybridized or cultivated varieties of those found in nature. 

Common forest trees grown as shade trees in the yard include:

Familiar ornamental and mast trees for the yard include:


Deciduous Trees vs. Coniferous Trees 

Coniferous trees are more than just ‘pine trees’ or trees with needles. Coniferous trees are those that bear cones. Other trees that do not bear cones are called broad-leaved trees, including all deciduous trees. 

Conifers include trees with needles and trees whose leaves are arranged as composites of flat scales, like the arborvitae

Not all conifers are evergreens. Some, like the tamarack and the bald cypress, display autumn colors and shed their needles in the fall. 

Just remember, if it has cones, it is a conifer.

Narrow Deciduous Trees

When growing in a forest, most deciduous trees will have tall trunks and narrow crowns as they reach for the canopy to compete for light. However, trees like maples and oaks will spread out quite large if grown in the open. Remember those giant, broad maple trees in a city park or the large stately trees in an old neighborhood?

Some deciduous trees grow naturally tall and narrow, which can be a benefit if you have a tighter space to plant them. 

Narrow-formed deciduous trees include aspens, white birch, and some hybrid poplars. They are often fast growers and can provide a quick privacy screen or summer shade. 

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