The Unsung Season of Baby Leaves

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In much of the country, April is a frenzy of blossoms–cherries and magnolias, crabapples, lilacs, and tulips.  The landscape is flooded with new flowers, and they receive all the glory.

Another, more subtle season also unfolds now, however.  It is the season of tiny new leaves.  Out they come in shades of bronze, silver, mustard, toffee, and lime green:  maples and sweetgums, ginkgos, planetrees, birches, beeches, and oaks.

What a shame it would be to miss this special season of fresh greenery on account of the showboats of spring!

baby liriodendron tulipifera tulip poplar leaves

Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) leaves emerge folded neatly in half.  Then they open like a book and expand quickly to full size.


baby quercus oak leaves1

Change happens fast this time of year.  In Cincinnati (and in much of the Eastern U.S.), the average high jumps 10 degrees from April 1 to April 30.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, the changes are more gradual, but still significant.  Here are some brand new oak leaves on April 4 in Portland.

baby quercus oak leaves2

Do you even recognize those same oak leaves a week later?


baby liquidambar styraciflua sweetgum leaves

The baby leaves of sweetgum are perfect miniatures of the final product.  The little balls you see are the flowers, which will turn into spiky “gumball” fruits later on.

baby koelreuteria paniculata goldenraintree leaves

How distinctive are the compound leaves of goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata)!  They are usually infused with a shrimp-pink color unlike anything else in the mid-spring landscape.

baby malus tschonoskii crabapple leaves

Crabapple foliage is often a tragedy by late summer, but now it has not yet been molested by insects or disease.  This Malus tschonoskii is unique among crabs in that its foliage is covered with a silver-white indumentum.


baby cercidophyllym japonica katsura leaves

Katsura (Cercidophyllum japonicum) leaves come out dime-sized and arranged along the slender stems in orderly pairs.  They range in color from brick red to caramel to asparagus-green.


baby styrax japonica japanese snowbell leaves

Japanese silverbell (Styrax japonica) leaves also flush out in neat pairs.  They stand up primly; the flowers will come later and hang down below.


baby betula birch leaves

How cute are these European white birch (Betula pendula) leaves?  The structures standing (almost) upright are made up of female flowers.  The familiar catkins that sway below are the males.


baby fagus sylvatica copper beech leaves

Beeches (Fagus spp.) unfurl from long, sharply pointed buds.  This copper beech cries out for some backlighting to set it off.  The dangling fuzzy bits are the flowers.


baby ginkgo biloba leaves

The iconic fans of ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) are easily recognizable, even when they are teeny-tiny.  Ginkgo is a tough urban tree, and a handful of them even survived the nuclear blast at Hiroshima.


baby parrotia persica leaves

Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica) is a tough tree with a cult-like status among Serious Gardeners.  These perfect leaves will remain unblemished all season and then turn patchwork quilt colors in the fall.


baby acer campestre hedge maple leaves

Hedge maple (Acer campestre) leaves come out a little crumpled.  Like a butterfly just emerged from its chrysalis, they will soon expand and smooth out.


baby platanus planetree leaves

Planetree’s (Platanus ×acerifolia) and the closely related sycamore’s (P. occidentalis) leaves emerge covered in a dense fuzz.  They will grow to many times their original size, but aren’t they precious now?

So, show me your kids’ baby pictures if you must, and I will agree that they’re adorable, but secretly I will be thinking, “They’ve got nothing on baby tree leaves!”  No, not even kittens or puppies or bunnies or ducklings are cuter.

Well, maybe one thing.  I did find this baby box turtle in the garden one year…

baby box turtle






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6 Responses

  1. Loree / danger garden
    Loree / danger garden at | | Reply

    Oh that turtle!!!!

    My Oak is a few days behind that first photo, thank you for the preview. Since I bought it last fall after the leaves had mostly turned and fallen I’m eagerly anticipating seeing it in it’s full (baby leaf) glory.

  2. David Beaulieu
    David Beaulieu at | | Reply

    Amy, this is my first year growing Spiraea japonica ‘Gold Flame.’ I already had Spiraea japonica ‘Gold Mound,’ so I planted the former near the latter to facilitate making comparisons. One difference I’m seeing already is in precisely the topic of your blog: the new leaves. ‘Gold Flame’ is starting out red, whereas ‘Gold Mound’ starts out more golden.

  3. David Beaulieu
    David Beaulieu at | | Reply

    I like that suggestion, Amy. Thank you.

  4. Ezra
    Ezra at | | Reply

    Hi, Could I use the photo of a newly emerging crabapple leaf for a school project? I would like to print it on a sign that is being used for a phenology trail in Lake Placid, NY for high school students.

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