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A leaf (plural leaves) is a dorsiventrally flattened organ of a vascular plant and is the principal lateral appendage of the stem, usually borne above ground and specialized for photosynthesis. The leaves and stem together form the shoot. Leaves are collectively referred to as foliage, as in "autumn foliage". In most leaves, the primary photosynthetic tissue, the palisade mesophyll, is located on the upper side of the blade or lamina of the leaf but in some species, including the mature foliage of Eucalyptus, palisade mesophyll is present on both sides and the leaves are said to be isobilateral. Most leaves have distinct upper surface (adaxial) and lower surface (abaxial) that differ in color, hairiness, the number of stomata (pores that intake and output gases), the amount and structure of epicuticular wax and other features. Leaves are mostly green in color. This is due to the presence of a compound called chlorophyll. This compound is essential for photosynthesis as it absorbs light energy from the sun. A leaf with white patches or edges is called a variegated leaf.
Typically leaves are broad, flat and thin (dorsiventrally flattened), thereby maximising the surface area directly exposed to light and enabling the light to penetrate the tissues and reach the chloroplasts, thus promoting photosynthesis. They are arranged on the plant so as to expose their surfaces to light as efficiently as possible without shading each other, but there are many exceptions and complications. For instance, plants adapted to windy conditions may have pendent leaves, such as in many willows and eucalyptss. The flat, or laminar, shape also maximizes thermal contact with the surrounding air, promoting cooling. Functionally, in addition to carrying out photosynthesis, the leaf is the principal site of transpiration, providing the energy required to draw the transpiration stream up from the roots, and guttation.
The shape and structure of leaves vary considerably from species to species of plant, depending largely on their adaptation to climate and available light, but also to other factors such as grazing animals (such as deer), available nutrients, and ecological competition from other plants. Considerable changes in leaf type occur within species, too, for example as a plant matures; as a case in point Eucalyptus species commonly have isobilateral, pendent leaves when mature and dominating their neighbors; however, such trees tend to have erect or horizontal dorsiventral leaves as seedlings, when their growth is limited by the available light. Other factors include the need to balance water loss at high temperature and low humidity against the need to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. In most plants, leaves also are the primary organs responsible for transpiration and guttation (beads of fluid forming at leaf margins).
The leaf-like organs of Bryophytes (e.g., mosses and liverworts), known as phyllids, differ morphologically from the leaves of vascular plants in that they lack vascular tissue, are usually only a single cell thick and have no cuticle stomata or internal system of intercellular spaces. These leaves are considered gametohytic, in contrast to the sporophytic leaves of vascular plants, which are associated with buds (immature shoot systems in the leaf axils). These can further develop into either vegetative or reproductive structures.
Two basic forms of leaves can be described considering the way the blade (lamina) is divided. A simple leaf has an undivided blade. However, the leaf may be dissected to form lobes, but the gaps between lobes do not reach to the main vein. A compound leaf has a fully subdivided blade, each leaflet of the blade being separated along a main or secondary vein. The leaflets may have petiolules and stipels, the equivalents of the petioles and stipules of leaves. Because each leaflet can appear to be a simple leaf, it is important to recognize where the petiole occurs to identify a compound leaf. Compound leaves are a characteristic of some families of higher plants, such as the Fabaceae. The middle vein of a compound leaf or a frond, when it is present, is called a rachis.
Both leaf blade and petiole structure influence the leaf's response to forces such as wind, allowing a degree of repositioning to minimize drag and damage, as opposed to resistance. Leaf movement like this may also increase turbulence of the air close to the surface of the leaf, which thins the boundary layer of air immediately adjacent to the surface, increasing the capacity for gas and heat exchange, as well as photosynthesis. Strong wind forces may result in diminished leaf number and surface area, which while reducing drag, involves a trade off of also reduces photosynthesis. Thus, leaf design may involve compromise between carbon gain, thermoregulation and water loss on the one hand, and the cost of sustaining both static and dynamic loads. In vascular plants, perpendicular forces are spread over a larger area and are relatively flexible in both bending and torsion, enabling elastic deforming without damage.
There are also many other descriptive terms, often with very specialized usage and confined to specific taxonomic groups. The conspicuousness of veins depends on a number of features. These include the width of the veins, their prominence in relation to the lamina surface and the degree of opacity of the surface, which may hide finer veins. In this regard, veins are called obscure and the order of veins that are obscured and whether upper, lower or both surfaces, further specified.