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What is a Deciduous Tree?

J. Beam
J. Beam

Deciduous trees are plants that drop their leaves for a part of every year, usually during periods of dryness or cold weather. Their branches remain free of foliage until conditions improve. For the tree, this means that it can save energy by not working to keep the leaves green and healthy. Despite having to deal with the fallen leaves and bare trees for part of the year, many people find this type of tree quite attractive, and they are also appreciated for their usefulness, providing wood for things like fires, building, and sculpting.

Cause of Leaf Loss

A deciduous tree.
A deciduous tree.

Trees lose their leaves when they go dormant, which is a means of self-preservation. The majority of plants require sun, light, and water to survive, and when any one of these elements is lacking, the stress triggers hormonal changes. These changes prompt the tree to put more energy into simply surviving, so the it ends up losing leaves, which take a great deal of water and energy to maintain and grow.

Cherry trees are deciduous.
Cherry trees are deciduous.

Leaf loss usually happens in a fairly predictable pattern. The tilt of the Earth is a key player here, as it affects both temperature and amount of light the plant receives. When a section of the globe is angled more directly toward the sun and receives more light and heat, leaves tend to grow. If part of the globe is angled away from the sun and receives less light and heat, however, leaves tend to fall. People, therefore, link the loss of leaves with annual seasonal changes, particularly autumn, even though deciduous trees technically can lose leaves at any time of the year.

Typical Height

Crabapples are a deciduous tree.
Crabapples are a deciduous tree.

Small trees that lose their leaves during some part of the year can be just a few feet (a meter or less) tall. The largest varieties can reach many times this height in extended proper growing conditions. The tallest reported sugar maple, for example, reached 110 feet (33.53 meters), and most grow at least 40 feet (12.19 meters).


Many deciduous varieties, such as cherries, crabapples, magnolias, and dogwoods, flower when they are leafless or just beginning to grow new leaves. This aids the pollination process because the flowers are visible to insects and there are no leaves to block the wind from carrying the pollen.

Losing leaves also means that there is less surface area on which ice and snow can collect. The amount of weight on the plant isn’t as high as a result, which reduces the chances that branches will crack or break.

Autumn is a noteworthy time for deciduous trees to drop their leaves.
Autumn is a noteworthy time for deciduous trees to drop their leaves.

One of the spectacular things about these types of plants is the wide array of colors the leaves often display before being shed, which many people find quite appealing. Colors can range from bright yellow to crimson and many shades of orange in between. This incredible display often is intense enough to attract tourists or inspire art, such as photographs and paintings.

Deciduous trees, like the cottonwood, are considered to be very attractive.
Deciduous trees, like the cottonwood, are considered to be very attractive.

People plant these trees in part because their leaves tend to be broad enough to provide some level of protection from the elements. Broad foliage is desirable in warmer climates because it creates shade that keep people and animals cool. In fact, deciduous trees have been shown to reduce home cooling costs in the summer by up to 10%, according to the Morton Arboretum. In winter, the shedding of the leaves lets the sun reach homes easily and provide more heat.


Even though deciduous plants have an edge in terms of pollination, their leaves are attractive to a number of animals such as deer. Insects also eat the leaves. Losing too many leaves in a short time period can shock the tree or even kill it.

When conditions improve following leaf loss, deciduous trees have to expend an enormous amount of energy in order to grow them again. That means they tend to need soil that has more nutrients. People who want to plant these trees may need to fertilize the ground naturally or with commercial products.

Compared to evergreens, trees that drop their leaves also tend to have most foliage in their upper half, creating a canopy. This allows people and animals to move easily underneath, but it doesn’t provide as much privacy because the leaves don’t extend down very far. Most species really work only as simple borders and aren’t very effective as natural fences or hedges.

The colors that appear prior to the leaf shedding process can be breathtaking, but once the leaves fall on the ground, they provide a breeding environment for pests, including mosquitoes. The leaves often give off an overwhelming aroma as they decay, and they can stick to shoes and be carried indoors. People typically rake or mulch leaves to combat these issues, but this takes time and can be physically challenging to complete.


Deciduous trees often are part of general landscaping plans, although planters need to trim them periodically to keep them shaped, prevent limb loss, and keep them from interfering with nearby items such as power lines. Homeowners sometimes select them specifically because of the color of both the leaves and the blossoms, achieving a decorating effect out of doors. They are good for climbing, and the wood from many species can be used for building, sculpting, and as firewood.

Why Do Deciduous Trees Lose Their Leaves?

Trees shed their leaves to increase their chances of surviving the oncoming winter. Leaves require a lot of resources to grow and thrive that the plant simply cannot spare in the colder months of the year. In autumn, the tree reroutes its nutrient flow away from the leaves and down to the roots. This process continues as the tree enters a low-energy state known as dormancy.

Though trees are stationary beings, they are not as passive as they appear to be. These plants are highly responsive to meteorological and environmental changes throughout the seasons. Temperature and moisture fluctuations, both in the air and in the soil, heavily influence when a tree drops its leaves. Exposure to sunlight, frost, and winds can also affect the timing of this natural phenomenon.

External forces are not the only deciding factors at play. The individual species's genetic profile also determines when its leaves will fall. This is why certain types of deciduous trees shed their leaves sooner or later than others, even in identical environmental conditions.

Why Do Deciduous Trees Go Dormant?

The ultimate aim of dormancy is to keep the tree alive in harsher conditions. During dormancy, certain life-sustaining functions are prioritized over others. The growth rates slow dramatically, and without leaves, photosynthesis comes to a grinding halt. Dormant trees distribute some of the water stored within their cells into the empty spaces between cell walls to prevent a deep freeze. If a significant number of cells become frozen over, the tree will die.

When To Plant Deciduous Trees and Where

Spring is the optimal time to plant a deciduous tree, especially if it is being planted in an environment with hot, dry summers. Spring's mild temperature fluctuations encourage the newly planted tree to focus on developing its root system. Once the root network is extensive, the tree is more resistant to extreme temperature swings, such as summer heatwaves. Watering frequently during dryer periods stimulates root growth and prevents the roots from shriveling up.

Deciduous trees can also be planted in autumn, but this requires a lot more planning. Tree species that are acclimated to extreme seasonal changes are more likely to survive the winter in new soil than those that are used to temperate biomes. If you intend to purchase your tree from a garden center, select a sapling that has been grown in a container, such as a pot or a burlap sack. Avoid planting trees with exposed roots because they are more sensitive to colder temperatures. Once it is planted, you should water it often until the ground is hard.

Choosing the ideal location for planting is just as important as the timing. Trees should be planted in locations that are suitable for their environmental requirements. Sunlight exposure, soil moisture, and soil composition are important criteria that can be used to evaluate the eligibility of an intended location. New trees should also be planted at least 15 feet from any existing structures. Some species tend to have widespread roots and should be given even more space to grow.

Deciduous vs. Coniferous Trees

Over millions of years, most trees have evolved into two main categories: deciduous and coniferous. Deciduous trees enter a state of dormancy when natural conditions are not suitable for leaf growth, which results in the shedding of their leaves. This process usually occurs in autumn and is reversed in the spring. Deciduous trees also produce flowers to aid in reproduction during the spring and summer. When the flowers are fertilized by pollen, which is carried by pollinating insects, they create seeds. Examples of deciduous trees include oak, sycamore, and maple.

Coniferous trees, also known as conifers, use needles for photosynthesis instead of leaves. The needles are unaffected by seasonal variations and maintain their deep green hue throughout the year. Conifers reproduce without flowers and pollinators. They rely on the wind to carry their pollen to receptive female cones, which are generally referred to as pine cones. The pine cones protect the seeds until they mature, at which point the cones fall to the ground and scatter the seeds. Pine, spruce, and yew are coniferous trees.

Deciduous conifers are a smaller, tertiary category that encompasses only 20 tree species. They reproduce in the same manner as conifers and have needles instead of leaves, but they drop their needles in autumn like deciduous trees. Larch, dawn redwood, and bald cypress belong to this category. Both deciduous and regular conifers are also called evergreens.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a deciduous tree?

A deciduous tree is characterized by the seasonal shedding of its leaves, typically in response to colder temperatures and reduced daylight in autumn. Unlike evergreens, deciduous trees enter a dormant state during winter, conserving energy until conditions are favorable for new growth in spring.

Why do deciduous trees lose their leaves?

Deciduous trees lose their leaves to conserve water and energy during the winter months when water is scarce and photosynthesis is less efficient due to lower light levels. This adaptation allows them to survive in climates with distinct seasonal changes.

How do deciduous trees benefit the ecosystem?

Deciduous trees play a crucial role in ecosystems by providing habitats and food for wildlife. Their leaf fall enriches the soil with organic matter, supporting a diverse range of flora and fauna. According to studies, forests with a mix of deciduous trees can support higher biodiversity than those with only evergreens.

What are some common examples of deciduous trees?

Common examples of deciduous trees include oaks, maples, and birches. These species are renowned for their vibrant autumn foliage, which ranges from bright yellows to deep reds, creating picturesque landscapes before the leaves drop.

How can you identify a deciduous tree in winter?

In winter, deciduous trees can be identified by their bare branches, as they have shed their leaves. Other distinguishing features include the presence of leaf scars, buds, and sometimes distinctive bark patterns or textures that become more noticeable in the absence of foliage.

Do deciduous trees have any economic importance?

Deciduous trees are economically significant for their timber, which is used in furniture, flooring, and paper production. They also contribute to tourism, particularly in regions known for spectacular autumn leaf displays, and play a vital role in carbon sequestration, helping to mitigate climate change.

Discussion Comments


Tamaracks are coniferous trees. Their needles turn yellow and

drop in autumn. I believe they are the same as a larch.


Thanks. This really helped for my project.


@anon322059: Evergreen trees are not considered to be deciduous trees. Read carefully, the post said "compared to".


If evergreens don't shred their leaves, then why are they considered deciduous trees? Wouldn't they

be coniferous?


I came up with a fun game involving deciduous trees when I was a kid. In the fall, when they began to shed their leaves in the breeze, I would make a sport of leaf catching.

There was a huge oak tree in my yard, and I would stand about twenty feet away from it and wait for the leaves to come toward me. You would be surprised how much running and jumping is involved in leaf catching. The leaves are so light and the breeze so fickle that even when one seems to be coming right toward you, it can change directions in an instant and have you in pursuit once more.

I would hate to live in a yard without deciduous trees. I have taught all my friends and their children to play this game, and we look forward to it every year.


@OeKc05 – I love tulip trees! My dad has one, and it is the most beautiful thing in his yard.

He also has a crabapple tree, and it makes some captivating blooms, as well. The sweet fragrance of these blossoms is even better than their appearance, and the bees agree with me. It is hard to get close enough to a bloom during the day to sniff it, because the whole tree is buzzing with bees!

Unlike the tulip tree, the blooms and leaves of the crabapple tree shoot forth at the same time. So, I get a mixture of greenery and white flowers.


I have a tulip tree in my yard, and it gets totally bare in the winter. It keeps these grayish-green buds on the tips of the stems, and these are where the flowers emerge from in early spring.

The tulip tree is one of the first to bloom. Mine gets these gorgeous purple flowers that resemble tulips on it during February, before its leaves have even emerged. I love to capture the wonder of this deciduous tree in pictures, because this beautiful phase only lasts a couple of weeks.

When the flowers fade, the spring green leaves start to fold out and grow. In the summer, it is covered in nothing but leaves, and since it has a short trunk, the tree is mostly green.


One of my favorite trees of the South is the magnolia. I have heard that you can find both deciduous and evergreen varieties, but the only kind I've ever seen down here are the evergreen kind.

It's interesting, because I have also heard that even deciduous magnolias that will lose their leaves when planted further north can stay evergreen down here in Mississippi. Maybe this explains why I've never seen a bare magnolia tree.

The leaves are so shiny and dark that they look fake. The blooms are huge and have a velvety feel to them. My evergreen magnolia sheds several leaves all throughout the year, but it always keeps the majority on its branches.


Fall is my favorite time of year, and one of the biggest reasons is because of the changing colors of the leaves.

Any time of the year when I see pictures of deciduous trees at the peak of their color, it almost takes my breath away.

Many times in the fall, we will plan trips so we can catch the trees right at their peak. Even though I take pictures every year, I cannot resist taking more pictures each time I see them.

It is hard in the winter when all the trees look so bare and brown, but that is one thing that also helps spring look so beautiful.

It is always so exciting when the trees first begin to bud. We have two magnolia trees in our yard, and they flower early in the spring, and I see that as the beginning of warmer weather.


The one thing I don't like about having a lot of deciduous trees is cleaning up after all the leaves.

We have some oak trees and a couple of maple trees close to our house. It is amazing how much shade one mature deciduous tree can give, but there are also frustrations that come along with that.

We ended up installing the gutters that are supposed to keep the leaves out because my husband got tired of cleaning the leaves out of the gutters all of the time.

There are also a lot of leaves to rake up in the fall and spring. I do have a couple dwarf deciduous trees close to our back deck.

These don't get nearly as tall as the others and I feel like they are a little bit easier to manage.


I wish we had more deciduous trees on our property. We live on three acres, and most of our trees are evergreen.

While I love evergreen trees, and enjoy having the green in the winter, I miss having deciduous shade trees by the house.

When we moved to this place all the trees that had been planted were evergreen. Since then, we have planted several deciduous trees, but it takes awhile for them to get big and really give a lot of shade.

I like to have a combination of both evergreen and deciduous trees. There is a line of deciduous trees that divides our property from our neighbor. I enjoy having these trees for some privacy and because they are beautiful to look at.


We live on some land that has about 13 acres of timber. We have a lot of large deciduous trees in our timber that were planted there long before we ever moved there.

I wouldn't be surprised if some of these trees were over 60 years old. I love walking through the timber when the trees are all in bloom and you can see and hear the wildlife in the trees.

In the winter when these trees lose their leaves, the timber can look pretty bare because most of the trees back there are deciduous.

I always look forward to spring when the trees begin to fill out and they are covered with leaves again. Some of them fill out much earlier than others, and it seems like the big oak trees are the last ones to get all their leaves.


"i don't get it. So when does an evergreen tree lose its leaves?"

Evergreen -- it's in the name. They are always green. They don't lose their leaves.


Where can i find deciduous trees and which ones are there?


i don't get it. So when does an evergreen tree lose its leaves?


where should you plant deciduous trees to save energy on heating and cooling?


why do dentists refer to baby teeth as deciduous teeth?

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    • A deciduous tree.
      By: marilyn barbone
      A deciduous tree.
    • Cherry trees are deciduous.
      By: Harris Shiffman
      Cherry trees are deciduous.
    • Crabapples are a deciduous tree.
      By: lawcain
      Crabapples are a deciduous tree.
    • Autumn is a noteworthy time for deciduous trees to drop their leaves.
      By: sborisov
      Autumn is a noteworthy time for deciduous trees to drop their leaves.
    • Deciduous trees, like the cottonwood, are considered to be very attractive.
      By: Photo168
      Deciduous trees, like the cottonwood, are considered to be very attractive.