How to Identify Plants . . . for Gardeners

How to Identify Plants . . . for Gardeners

By Michael Jenkins

It’s not a great secret or a huge revelation that gardeners like plants. Learning about plants, understanding the biology and botany of plant life, and exploring the ecosystem that supports them are all part of learning and growing as a gardener. Plant identification is part of the art and science of gardening, and it goes beyond reading the labels on seeds and seedlings. With a little effort, we can all learn how to identify some of the plants that live around us, how to examine and identify plants that are new to us, and how to use the resources available to learn more about botany and plant life. Let’s dig in!

A quick note about wild edibles: while there are many wild plants that are edible, tasty, and nutritious, it can be very easy to misidentify them and ingest something poisonous instead. We recommend refraining from eating wild edibles without expert, on-site identification.

Basis of Plant Identification

When we encounter a new plant either in a garden or in the wild, there are a number of steps we can take to help us identify what it is and where it fits into the broader world of plant life. With the right tools and the right approach, we can all be well on the way to identifying the plants that live all around us.

  • First step: get a plant field guide for your region. Even with all the online or digital tools available (and we’ll talk about those in a moment), there’s nothing better than a regionally focused field guide to the plants around you. Your local library is a great place to find which guides are best for your region, so pay them a visit and talk to the librarians. A good field guide will give you detailed information about the plant in question, its taxonomy, and how it grows and fits into the ecosystem. We do suggest reading the guide before you go out looking for plants, just to familiarize yourself with its layout and with the plants in question.

  • Whenever possible, examine and identify living plants where you find them rather than trying to take notes and photos and identify it later. Obviously circumstances may not always permit this, but identifying plants where you encounter them is the most effective way to go about it. Where the plant grows, how it grows, and what’s around it may reveal important clues, so don’t ignore them.
  • Look at the important details in order to best identify your target plant. What color are the blossoms, if any? What shape are the leaves? Do they grow in clusters? Is the stem woody or herbaceous? How tall does the plant grow? Are there seed pods or fruits—if so, what shape and size? Taking photos on your phone for later reference can help here, as can taking some written notes.

  • It’s time to use your field guide in order to use your observations to identify the plant. Many guides group plants by environment: fields, swamps, marshy areas, woodlands. This is why we suggest identification in place. Look for plants in your guide with similar description: flower color, leaf shape, stem composition, bark, and seed/fruit type. Height and season are important details, so take those into account. This will help you narrow down your options and make a tentative identification.
  • If you’re really curious about plant identification, take a class or course. Many extension offices, community colleges and universities, or local plant clubs will offer plant identification or native plant courses from time to time and they’re a great way to learn about the plants that live around you. Yes, you can absolutely learn a lot on your own, but sometimes it helps to have expert guidance. Also—many state and county extension offices offer plant identification services so don’t be afraid to ask if you’re really stumped.

Plant Identification Apps

Some of you may be wondering about plant identification apps, and how they can be used by curious gardeners to identify plants we encounter in the wild. Well, plant identification apps are absolutely wonderful and useful tools for identifying plants. They’re easily portable, do a lot of the work for us, and are really simple to use to identify plants on site. Unfortunately we can’t recommend a single plant identification app—the digital landscape changes too often so you’ll have to do some research to stay up to date as to which app is best. We also caution you to avoid taking an individual plant ID app’s identification as final and definitive. Apps can make mistakes too, so double check with your field guide or a relevant expert as needed.

Get Out There and Explore!

Gardening is a learning process, and we hope that this blog inspires you to take that learning in a new direction and start identifying plants on your own. There are so many tools available and so many ways to go about the journey that the only thing left to do is get out there and explore the world of plants in your garden and beyond!

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