Merkle Trees

Before we wrap up this unit, let's take a look at some of the other ways that Bitcoin makes use of hashing. Have you heard of a Merkle tree? This is the data structure that prevents any alteration of transaction data in a Bitcoin block. This page covers the data structure of a block, including Merkle trees.

Each block in the bitcoin blockchain contains a summary of all the transactions in the block using a merkle tree.

A merkle tree, also known as a binary hash tree, is a data structure used for efficiently summarizing and verifying the integrity of large sets of data. Merkle trees are binary trees containing cryptographic hashes. The term "tree" is used in computer science to describe a branching data structure, but these trees are usually displayed upside down with the "root" at the top and the "leaves" at the bottom of a diagram, as you will see in the examples that follow.


Figure 1. Blocks linked in a chain by reference to the previous block header hash

Merkle trees are used in bitcoin to summarize all the transactions in a block, producing an overall digital fingerprint of the entire set of transactions, providing a very efficient process to verify whether a transaction is included in a block. A merkle tree is constructed by recursively hashing pairs of nodes until there is only one hash, called the root, or merkle root. The cryptographic hash algorithm used in bitcoin’s merkle trees is SHA256 applied twice, also known as double-SHA256.

When N data elements are hashed and summarized in a merkle tree, you can check to see if any one data element is included in the tree with at most 2*log~2~(N) calculations, making this a very efficient data structure.

The merkle tree is constructed bottom-up. In the following example, we start with four transactions, A, B, C, and D, which form the leaves of the merkle tree, as shown in Calculating the nodes in a merkle tree. The transactions are not stored in the merkle tree; rather, their data is hashed and the resulting hash is stored in each leaf node as HA, HB, HC, and HD:

HA = SHA256(SHA256(Transaction A))


Consecutive pairs of leaf nodes are then summarized in a parent node, by concatenating the two hashes and hashing them together. For example, to construct the parent node HAB, the two 32-byte hashes of the children are concatenated to create a 64-byte string. That string is then double-hashed to produce the parent node’s hash:/

HAB = SHA256(SHA256(HA + HB))  


The process continues until there is only one node at the top, the node known as the merkle root. That 32-byte hash is stored in the block header and summarizes all the data in all four transactions. Calculating the nodes in a merkle tree shows how the root is calculated by pair-wise hashes of the nodes.


Figure 2. Calculating the nodes in a merkle tree


Because the merkle tree is a binary tree, it needs an even number of leaf nodes. If there is an odd number of transactions to summarize, the last transaction hash will be duplicated to create an even number of leaf nodes, also known as a balanced tree. This is shown in Duplicating one data element achieves an even number of data elements, where transaction C is duplicated.


Figure 3. Duplicating one data element achieves an even number of data elements


The same method for constructing a tree from four transactions can be generalized to construct trees of any size. In bitcoin it is common to have several hundred to more than a thousand transactions in a single block, which are summarized in exactly the same way, producing just 32 bytes of data as the single merkle root. In A merkle tree summarizing many data elements, you will see a tree built from 16 transactions. Note that although the root looks bigger than the leaf nodes in the diagram, it is the exact same size, just 32 bytes. Whether there is one transaction or a hundred thousand transactions in the block, the merkle root always summarizes them into 32 bytes.

To prove that a specific transaction is included in a block, a node only needs to produce log~2~(N) 32-byte hashes, constituting an authentication path or merkle path connecting the specific transaction to the root of the tree. This is especially important as the number of transactions increases, because the base-2 logarithm of the number of transactions increases much more slowly. This allows bitcoin nodes to efficiently produce paths of 10 or 12 hashes (320–384 bytes), which can provide proof of a single transaction out of more than a thousand transactions in a megabyte-sized block.


Figure 4. A merkle tree summarizing many data elements


In merkle path used to prove inclusion of a data element, a node can prove that a transaction K is included in the block by producing a merkle path that is only four 32-byte hashes long (128 bytes total). The path consists of the four hashes (shown with a shaded background in A merkle path used to prove inclusion of a data element) HL, HIJ, HMNOP, and HABCDEFGH. With those four hashes provided as an authentication path, any node can prove that H K (with a black background at the bottom of the diagram) is included in the merkle root by computing four additional pair-wise hashes HKL, HIJKL, HIJKLMNOP, and the merkle tree root (outlined in a dashed line in the diagram).


Figure 5. A merkle path used to prove inclusion of a data element


The code in Building a merkle tree demonstrates the process of creating a merkle tree from the leaf-node hashes up to the root, using the libbitcoin library for some helper functions.

Example 1. Building a merkle tree



Compiling and running the merkle example code shows the result of compiling and running the merkle code.

Example 2. Compiling and running the merkle example code

# Compile the merkle.cpp code
$ g++ -o merkle merkle.cpp $(pkg-config --cflags --libs libbitcoin)
# Run the merkle executable
$ ./merkle
Current merkle hash list:

Current merkle hash list:

Result: d47780c084bad3830bcdaf6eace035e4c6cbf646d103795d22104fb105014ba3


The efficiency of merkle trees becomes obvious as the scale increases. Merkle tree efficiency shows the amount of data that needs to be exchanged as a merkle path to prove that a transaction is part of a block.

Table 3. Merkle tree efficiency

Number of transactions Approx. size of block Path size (hashes) Path size (bytes)

16 transactions

4 kilobytes

4 hashes

128 bytes

512 transactions

128 kilobytes

9 hashes

288 bytes

2048 transactions

512 kilobytes

11 hashes

352 bytes

65,535 transactions

16 megabytes

16 hashes

512 bytes


As you can see from the table, while the block size increases rapidly, from 4 KB with 16 transactions to a block size of 16 MB to fit 65,535 transactions, the merkle path required to prove the inclusion of a transaction increases much more slowly, from 128 bytes to only 512 bytes. With merkle trees, a node can download just the block headers (80 bytes per block) and still be able to identify a transaction’s inclusion in a block by retrieving a small merkle path from a full node, without storing or transmitting the vast majority of the blockchain, which might be several gigabytes in size. Nodes that do not maintain a full blockchain, called simplified payment verification (SPV) nodes, use merkle paths to verify transactions without downloading full blocks.

Source: Andreas M. Antonopoulos,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 2:43 PM