Leaf Key to the Common Trees of South Carolina

This dichotomous key can be used to identify 60 different trees common to South Carolina.  Beginning with number one, select one of the two choices presented and proceed to the corresponding number in the right column.  Continue following links in the right column until reaching a tree name.   The key relies heavily on leaf and twig characteristics for tree identification.  Links to definitions of difficult terms are provided where possible.  If you click through to a definition or wish to return to an earlier choice in the key, use your browser's back button.


1. Trees with needlelike or scalelike leaves (conifers) 2
Trees with broad flat leaves of many shapes and patterns (broadleaves)




2. Leaves needlelike 3
Leaves scalelike, sometimes prickly on young trees


eastern redcedar


3. Leaves in bundles or clusters (fascicles) of 5 or fewer (pines) 4
Leaves not in bundles or clusters




4. Leaves in bundles of 5 eastern white pine
Leaves in bundles of 2 or 3




5. Leaves in bundles of 2 6
Leaves in bundles of 3 or of 2 and 3




6. Leaves twisted, mostly 2 inches long or shorter Virginia pine
Leaves not twisted, mostly more than 2 inches long


spruce pine


7. Leaves in bundles of 2 and 3 8
Leaves in bundles of 3




8. Leaves short (2-4 inches), cone small (2-3 inches) shortleaf pine
Leaves long (6-10 inches), cone large (4-6 inches)


slash pine


9. Leaves very long (10-14 inches), cone very large (8-10 inches) longleaf pine
Leaves 5-9 inches long, cones 4-6 inches




10. Cones 4-6 inches, narrowly conical when closed loblolly pine
Cones 2-3 inches, globular when closed, persistent on tree for years


pond pine


11. Leaves flattened, evergreen, white on underside eastern hemlock
Leaves fern-like, deciduous, green on both sides




12. Leaves fan-shaped, 2 or more feet across cabbage palmetto
Leaves otherwise




13. Leaves opposite or whorled 14
Leaves alternate




14. Leaves in whorls of 3 southern catalpa
Leaves opposite in pairs




15. Leaves compound 16
Leaves simple




16. Leaflets 3-5, margins with coarsely serrated teeth or shallowly lobed boxelder
Leaflets 5-9, margins smooth (entire) or with finely serrated teeth


white ash


17. Leaves 3-5 lobed, margins doubly serrate red maple
Leaves unlobed, margins smooth


flowering dogwood


18. Leaves compound 19
Leaves simple




19. Twigs with thorns, spines, or prickles 20
Twigs without thorns, spines, or prickles




20. Twigs with long thorns, leaves twice compound honeylocust
Twigs with short spines, leaves once compound


black locust


21. Leaves with terminal leaflets larger than lateral leaflets, twigs with solid pith 22
Leaves with terminal leaflets the same size as lateral leaflets, twigs with chambered pith


black walnut


22. Leaflets 5-9, leaflets, petiole, and rachis densely hairy mockernut hickory
Leaflets 3-7, leaflets, petiole, and rachis smooth or nearly so




23. Bark shaggy, peeling in long strips shagbark hickory
Bark tightly furrowed, not peeling


pignut hickory


24. Leaves evergreen, thick and leathery 25
Leaves deciduous, thin and papery




25. Leaves with spine-toothed margins American holly
Leaves with smooth margins




26. Leaves large, over 6 inches long, with rusty hairs beneath southern magnolia
Leaves small, 2-5 inches long, without hairs




27. Leaves densely white beneath, without lobes sweetbay
Leaves greenish or slightly white beneath, occasionally with lobes


live oak


28. Leaves lobed 29
Leaves unlobed or with occasional small shallow lobes




29. Leaves with 3 shapes (unlobed, lobed, 3-lobed) 30
Leaves with one basic shape




30. Leaves with smooth (entire) margins sassafras
Leaves with serrate margins


red mulberry


31. Leaves star-shaped, with 5 to 7 lobes sweetgum
Leaves not star-shaped




32. Tip and base of leaves truncate, shallowly 4-lobed yellow-poplar
Leaves not truncated




33. Leaves with 3 or more main veins, margins with large coarse teeth American sycamore
Leaves with 1 vein, margins deeply lobed (oaks)




34. Leaves with smooth, rounded lobes (white oaks) 35
Leaves with bristle-tipped lobes (red oaks)




35. Lobes similar with sinuses halfway to midrib white oak
Lobes uneven with varying depths of sinus




36. Three upper lobes square, forming a cross, deep central sinus post oak
Three upper lobes pointed, shallow, central sinus


overcup oak


37. Base of leaves bell-shaped, 3-5 leaflets with terminal lobe long and narrow southern red oak
Base of leaves tapering or rounded with terminal lobe and lateral lobes of the same size




38. Base of leaves strongly tapering turkey oak
Base of leaves rounded or shallowly tapering




39. Base of leaves rounded, shallowly 3-lobed, with minute bristles at the tip of the lobes blackjack oak
Base of leaves shallowly tapering with 5 to 7 lobes




40. Leaves leathery, hairy beneath black oak
Leaves papery, without hairs beneath




41. Lobes large, sinuses shallow, narrow northern red oak
Lobes small, sinuses deep, wide


scarlet oak


42. Leaves with smooth margins (or occasionally with shallow teeth) 43
Leaves with toothed margins




43. Leaves heart-shaped (cordate) eastern redbud
Leaves not heart-shaped




44. Leaves deciduous, but stay on the tree through the winter, less than 4 inches long 45
Leaves deciduous and fall off the tree before winter, 4-10 inches long




45. Leaves with occasional lobes and teeth, having a long tapering base water oak
Leaves with wavy margins, occasionally with teeth, having a rounded base


laurel oak


46. Leaves 3 or more times as long as wide willow oak
Leaves less than 3 times as long as wide




47. Leaves 6-10 inches long, with occasional large shallow teeth water tupelo
Leaves 4-6 inches long, without teeth (entire)




48. Leaves widest in upper half black tupelo
Leaves widest at middle or in lower half


common persimmon


49. Leaves with small teeth above the middle, smooth margins below sourwood
Leaf margins toothed (serrated) throughout




50. Leaves with parallel veins, each vein ending in a tooth 51
Leaves with net veins, not ending in a tooth




51. Leaf margins with singly serrate teeth 52
Leaf margins with doubly serrate teeth




52. Leaves with rounded teeth (undulate) 53
Leaves with sharp points or bristles on the teeth


American beech


53. Leaves downy beneath, petioles yellow swamp chestnut oak
Leaves smooth beneath, petioles green


chestnut oak


54. Leaves that have bases with unequal (oblique) sides 55
Leaves with symmetrical bases




55. Leaves 1 to 3 inches long winged elm
Leaves longer than 3 inches


American elm


56. Leaf bases broadly wedge-shaped river birch
Leaf bases rounded or tapered


American hornbeam


57. Leaves 4 or more times as long as wide black willow
Leaves not more than twice as long as wide




58. Leaves heart-shaped (cordate), white beneath white basswood
Leaves not heart-shaped, green beneath




59. Midvein (midrib) paralleled by two prominent lateral veins from leaf base sugarberry
Midvein (midrib) distinct, often with rusty hairs beneath


black cherry