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Botanical Illustration: Compound and Simple leaves

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,

I’ve recently completed some botanical illustrations and diagrams of leaves.  They’re for for The 21st Century Herbal by Michael Balick. Several illustrations demonstrating different botanical terms for leaf shape were required.

Reasons why botanical terminology helps

I think knowing what variety exists in nature helps you to understand what you’re drawing.  So I thought I’d share some botanical terminology with you.  The terms discussed are in bold text; the examples are all illustrations I’ve done over the years.  If you find any mistakes feel free to tell me, I’m no botanist, just a keen and interested amateur.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Pencil rough of simple leaf shape and variety

 

 Leaves and their anatomy: Things to consider

When illustrating plants you need to consider: the leaf structure, its shape, its margins, its venation, and the position of the leaves in relation to one another and the stem.

This would result in a frighteningly long blog.  For today I’ll just discuss compound vs simple leaves, and some basic shapes of simple leaves.

Compound and Simple leaves: Which is which?

First, establish whether your leaf is simple, (in one piece) or compound (subdivided into smaller leaves).  Each of these smaller divisions is known as a leaflet.   A good trick here is to look for a bud.  Buds only occur at the junction of a leaf stem (petiole) and the main stem.  They never appear at the base of  a leaflet’s stem (called a rachis).  This is shown in my illustration of different forms of compound leaves below.

Compound leaves
leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Variety of compound leaves

Compound leaves and simple leaves come in a wide variety of shapes.  For example; a chestnut leaf, spreading its hand-like shape, is a compound leaf.  It is made of 5 to 7 leaflets, all anchored centrally.  The little leaflets are arranged a little like the fingers of a hand, hence the term palmate.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Horse chestnut showing palmate leaves

 

A leaf from the clover family (represented here by the bird’s foot trefoil) consists of three little leaflets, again, attached to one central point.  The term translates the English “three-leaved” into latin terminology: trifoliolate.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Birds foot trefoil with Trifoliate leaves

 

Sometimes, what appears to be a branch or sprig of leaves are, in fact, one leaf composed of many leaflets.  This is true of the ash.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Ash with spray of leaflets

 

Look for the bud at the junction of the leaves if you’re confused

Confused?  Use the trick of searching for the bud.  It’s at the junction of the sprig with the stem, you never see a little bud at the base of an individual leaflet.  This array is called pinnate, and in this case it’s an odd pinnate example since there’s one leaflet at  the tip without a pair.  You can also get even pinnate leaves (like the mimosa) where every leaflet has a pair, including at the tip of the rachis.  Just to make things even trickier, if each leaflet is divided again (stay with me, and picture an acacia, if you can) this is called doubly compound, or bipinnate.

Simple leaves

You’ve established your leaf is not compound.  If there is a bud to be seen, it’s at the base of the leaf stem.  Your leaf is simple.  But your life is not; because all leaves are by no means alike.  There’s a vast amount of shape variation amongst leaf shape (and a bit of variation between botanists who sometimes use different terms for these shapes.  In this blog, my references are Botany: A functional Approach by W. Muller, and Botany: A Textbook for Colleges by Hill, Popp, and Grove.)

The easiest shape to identify is Linear, or line-like.  Lavender and rosemary are examples.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Rosemary has simple linear leaves

cordate leaf is somewhat heart-shaped; mulberry and lime are examples.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Lime has simple cordate leaves

 

Ovate leaves are egg-shaped, with their base a little wider than their middle and their tip a little thinner than the middle; as with the beech leaf.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Beech has simple ovate leaves

 

lanceolate leaf is a very narrow ovate (egg-shaped) leaf; it tends to be at least 6x longer than it is wide.  Willow leaves are lanceolate.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Willow has simple lanceolate leaves

 

Elliptical leaves are widest in their middle and taper evenly on either side of this.  Mint, cherry, and sage leaves are examples.

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,
Sage bears simple elliptical leaves

 

Oblong leaves are broad and un-tapered.  An example is the olive, and rhododendron.

Simple leaves: An overview

Here’s the overview of simple leaf shapes in one image:

leaf, leaves, leaf shape, compound leaves, simple leaves, botany, botany terms,

 

 

There are many other leaf shapes, such as orbicularrotundifoliate or peltate (all terms relate to leaves which are round, like a nasturtium) and sagittate (like an arrow) to name but two.  (For further discussion and examples, please follow this link from the University of Maryland.)

From the remit I had in doing the illustrations for The Rodale 21st Century Herbal, this is most of what I examined.  I hope some of it helps people as much as it has helped me.

6 comments

    1. Hi Britt, Im so glad it was helpful, and enjoyable. Thankyou so much for taking the time to leave a comment!

  1. Thank you so much for this, it’s so generous of you to share your work. These illustrations have helped me so much.
    Your work is beautiful.

  2. A very informative post and lovely paintings! However, I am still a little confused. I am studying a juvenile ivy leaf. It is five lobed and palmate but a I am not sure if it is simple or compound. Help! 🙂

    1. Hi Shirley

      I totally understand the confusion. A compound leaf has to be composed of different leaflets, which look like individual leaves. Ivy leaves are simple (i.e. lobed or unlobed but not separated into leaflets) because they aren’t separated into leaflets. Hope this helps? Thanks for asking. x

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Lizzie Harper