PNG images: Leaf icons

A leaf is an organ of a vascular plant and is the principal lateral appendage of the stem. The leaves and stem together form the shoot. Leaves are collectively referred to as foliage, as in "autumn foliage".

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Although leaves can be seen in many different shapes, sizes and textures, typically a leaf is a thin, dorsiventrally flattened organ, borne above ground and specialized for photosynthesis. In most leaves, the primary photosynthetictissue, 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 distinctive upper surface (adaxial) and lower surface (abaxial) that differ in colour, hairiness, the number of stomata (pores that intake and output gases), epicuticular wax amount and structure and other features.

Broad, flat leaves with complex venation are known as megaphylls and the species that bear them, the majority, as broad-leaved or megaphyllous plants. In others, such as the clubmosses, with different evolutionary origins, the leaves are simple, with only a single vein and are known as microphylls.

Some leaves, such as bulb scales are not above ground, and in many aquatic species the leaves are submerged in water. Succulent plants often have thick juicy leaves, but some leaves are without major photosynthetic function and may be dead at maturity, as in some cataphylls and spines. Furthermore, several kinds of leaf-like structures found in vascular plants are not totally homologous with them. Examples include flattened plant stems called phylloclades and cladodes, and flattened leaf stems called phyllodes which differ from leaves both in their structure and origin. Many structures of non-vascular plants, such as the phyllids of mosses and liverworts and even of some foliose lichens, which are not plants at all (in the sense of being members of the kingdom Plantae), look and function much like leaves.

Leaves are the most important organs of most vascular plants. Since plants are autotrophic, they do not need food from other living things to survive but instead use carbon dioxide, water and light energy, to create their own organic matter by photosynthesis of simple sugars, such as glucose and sucrose. These are then further processed by chemical synthesis into more complex organic molecules such as cellulose, the basic structural material in plant cell walls. The plant must therefore bring these three ingredients together in the leaf for photosynthesis to take place. The leaves draw water from the ground in the transpiration stream through a vascular conducting system known as xylem and obtain carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by diffusion through openings called stomata in the outer covering layer of the leaf (epidermis), while leaves are orientated to maximise their exposure to sunlight. Once sugar has been synthesized, it needs to be transported to areas of active growth such as the plant shoots and roots. Vascular plants transport sucrose in a special tissue called the phloem. The phloem and xylem are parallel to each other but the transport of materials is usually in opposite directions. Within the leaf these vascular systems branch (ramify) to form veins which supply as much as the leaf as possible, ensuring that cells carrying out photosynthesis are close to the transportation system.

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