“Did you see any kitties in the backyard?” my mother-in-law asked my son.
“No, they were hiding in the avocado tree,” he said.
They were. Only it wasn’t an avocado tree. This was a backyard in Oregon. But the leaves of the tree were similar to those of an avocado. See them in the photo above? Plus, my son is two years old. We’ll give him a break.
Over time, after years of slowing down and taking close looks at the leaves of the plants growing in our gardens (for bugs, diseases, or fun), we begin to recognize them as surely as the faces of family. I now recognize the subtle differences between the leaves below, and even if you don’t also grow all of these particular plants in your yard I’d guess that you’ll still be able to distinguish them from their look-alikes.
Tomato or potato?
Can you tell which of these photos shows tomato leaves and which shows potato?
Their leaves are similar just as many other things about tomatoes and potatoes are similar, or even the same. Taxonomists classify them in the same genus, Solanum. Both tomatoes and potatoes were originally cultivated by people in the Americas and introduced to Europe and the rest of the world by Spanish explorers.
These two plants are so akin that you can graft a tomato top onto a potato bottom and grow a single plant that fruits tomatoes in the air while forming potatoes under the dirt. “Ketchup ‘n’ Fries” is what one company calls this centaur of a plant. (See it at Territorial Seed Company here.)
Anyway, the photos above were taken in my yard, and so I know that the first one is a potato and the second a tomato. One way you could tell just be looking at the photos is that tomato leaves generally have pointier tips.
Banana or bird of paradise?
The tell between these two is in how the leaves fold: Are they up like a taco or down like a tent?
Birds of paradise have taco leaves; bananas have tent leaves.
Blackberry or raspberry?
The most obvious distinguishing characteristic for me is the corrugation. Raspberry leaves remind me of accordions whereas blackberry leaves are comparatively flat. This bottom photo, then, is of a blackberry — and the top, a raspberry.
Now here’s a fun bonus. Blackberry or raspberry?
Why, it’s a combination! These are leaves on my boysenberry bush, boysenberries being a cross between raspberries and blackberries. Rudolph Boysen invented them, and then Walter Knott (of Knott’s Berry Farm) sold them and made them famous, all of this happening from the 1920s onward right here in Orange County.
In nearby Los Angeles County, my grandmother made us boysenberry pies every summer of my youth. To this day, a better dessert is unknown to me than Grandma’s fresh boysenberry pie plated beside Grandpa’s homemade vanilla ice cream. Anyway, some years back I found two feral boysenberry canes surviving in an abandoned corner of their horse corral. I transplanted them to my yard in San Diego County, and they’ve grown well to make the leaves you see in the photo above, and I have yet to find a variety of raspberry or blackberry that performs better in Southern California than these heirloom boysenberries.
(Read more about the boysenberry history in our region in this Los Angeles Times article.)
Avocado or magnolia?
Yes, it’s magnolia. I imagine that one was easy. You can see the brown undersides of the leaves, and you can even see the magnolia cones (fruit) that look nothing like avocados.
But here’s a challenge. One of the photos below is a Hass avocado stem and leaves while the other is Fuerte.
The difference is not so much in the leaves as in the red flecks on the stem. Do you see those in the bottom picture? Hass doesn’t have them, but Fuerte (and some other avocado varieties) does. So that bottom photo is Fuerte.
If you have one of these trees, go check the stems on a flush of new growth for red flecks.
Peach or nectarine?
Finally, can you tell the difference between peach and nectarine leaves?
I bow down to you if you can. I would have no idea if this photo showed peach or nectarine leaves if I hadn’t taken it myself. As far as I’m aware, peaches and nectarines are indistinguishable in every way except for the fuzz on their fruit. That is, a nectarine tree is just a peach tree without fuzz on its fruit.
The truth is that the photo shows both peach and nectarine leaves. I grafted some peach branches onto a tree that was originally just nectarine. You can see where I grafted one of the peach branches because I painted the graft union with a blue swatch (center lower right). Otherwise, I’d lose track of which branches were peach and which were nectarine because the foliage is identical to my eyes.
But maybe I need to pay closer attention?
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