The variation in stomatal characters in leaves from one Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertn. tree is analysed. Measurements were taken from over 70 sites on the abaxial surfaces of representative ‘sun’ and ‘shade’ leaves having the same insertion point. The mean values of stomatal density and index in the shade leaf were significantly lower (71 and 93%, respectively) than those for the sun leaf. Within leaves, up to 2.5-fold differences in stomatal density values were observed. Contour maps derived from the data reveal non-random trends over the leaf surface. Correlations between stomatal density, epidermal cell density and stomatal index indicate that the variation in stomatal density within leaves arose primarily from local differences in stomatal differentiation, rather than from local differences in leaf expansion. This research demonstrates that a high level of variation in stomatal characters occurs both within and between leaves. We conclude that a well-defined sampling strategy should be used when estimating stomatal characters for (tree) leaves. Furthermore, the leaf's insertion point and situation within the tree crown should be taken into account. We discuss the implications of these findings for palaeoclimatic interpretations and emphasize the need for great caution when drawing conclusions based solely on stomatal characters.