Earlier this year I surveyed my newsletter members for their top questions. Here’s one about how to identify plants found in the outdoors.
It’s more of a comment than a question, but I’m creating this post in response to it. Although I’ve paraphrased some, I believe the underlying question would be “how to identify plants found in the wild”:
“My problem is being able to identify the plant, tree, bush and vine when I find them in the open outdoors. Would appreciate seeing pictures and descriptions when reading about them.”
I’ve never really paid attention to the steps I take when I’m trying to identify a new plant, but I’ll try to organize my process for you.
If any of you out there reading this have other methods you use, please comment. The more input from others, the more information this reader will have to draw on.
The First Thing
First thing for me is to look for flowers. If there are flowers, I usually go to the web and search through wildflower databases for my area. I start with USWildflowers.com. The link is to the Arkansas database. On the right hand side they’re organized by color of the flower.
This is just a starting point if I know nothing other than the color of the flower. If I had an idea of which family the plant belonged to, that would give some extra clues to start the search. For example, if the stems were square, I’d start searching plants of the mint family.
Looking for Clues
However, in the photo I posted, there are no flowers. And I can’t see the stem shape well enough to say if it’s square or round. It is green. It looks tender. And it must like moist ground. It’s been pretty cold outside and yet it’s still green, too. So these are all good clues to use.
Know some Botany
It will help to have some basic botany so you’ll know if the leaves are opposite or alternate, are they attached to the stem by petioles or not, are they “clasping”? Clasping leaves wrap around the stem where they join. Petioles are little stems at the leaf base where it attaches to the larger stem. It is the “leafstalk”. Sometimes the stem seems to go *through* the leaf.
Understanding the Latin
The botanical names of plants offer a lot of clues and can help you when you’re trying to figure out if the photo of the plant you’re looking at is the same as the one you are trying to identify.
For example, let’s go back to the leaves that have the stems going through them. The plants with leaves that do this most often have the word “perfoliate” or some derivative of that word as part of the Latin binomial. It means to perforate, or go through.
If you’ve found a photo that looks a lot like your plant, and if the latin last name of that plant doesn’t match what you think you’ve found, then it’s a good clue that your identification is wrong. It is just as important to know when you’re wrong as it is to know when you’re right.
Using the Internet
If you have access to the internet, it makes identification a lot easier. If I had to start the search knowing nothing except what I can see in the photo above, I’d search using this:
“tender green wild plant“
It looks tender in the photo. I imagine if I pulled on it, it would come up easily. It just looks like it has shallow roots because it looks so tender.
So this is the results page for my search of the term listed above. You’ll have to click on this link and I hope it displays the same way I’m seeing it or the rest of this section might not make a lot of sense. (Note: it does not display the same on all screens. On my laptop it is the first, seventh and eleventh photos.)
The first, seventh, and thirteenth pictures are the ones that look a lot like the plant I’m trying to identify. The first one has flowers on it, but the leaves look the same. The thirteenth looks most similar. I’m going to click on the thirteenth one first and see what it says. I get “Page Not Found”. So I’ll click on the seventh image.
A Name to Go On
Aha – that one gives me a common name without having to go all the way through to a website. “Chickweed”. When I do click through to the website, it gives a very detailed write-up about chickweed, or Stellaria media. I’ll take that information and compare the details to my plant, and then look up chickweed in a few other places to compare all the data.
In this case, finding the Latin name didn’t offer me a lot of clues. Mainly that’s because there are no flowers on it right now, but “stellaria” refers to little stars, and the flowers are like tiny stars. “media” refers to middle or in the midst of. I’ve seen explanations that say it’s named so because the mound of greenery covered with flowers does indeed look as if you’re in the midst of stars.
However, I believe it’s named so because in the middle of the end of each stalk is where you’ll find the “little stars”.
Verify the species
There are often other species of plants that have slightly different features. Smooth or hairy are common ones. Often the differences don’t matter in whether the two can be used in the same way. But in the case of chickweed, it matters to me.
There are some types that are hairy and won’t be very good in a salad. Not only is this one pictured below hairy, it’s not even the same genus/species even though it is still called “chickweed” and looks similar:
Other times, the different species will have entirely different properties. If you’re using plants medicinally, this will matter a lot. Even when it comes to flavor and taste for edible domestic plants, like apples, you can easily tell a difference between one variety and the next by flavor and texture, let alone between species.
Wait for Flowers
Watch plants you’re not certain about for a full year. See if it flowers. If it does, will it set fruit? How do the seed pods look, and how are the seeds dispersed? Observing a whole season of growth and change offers lots of clues and helps greatly to identify plants.
These things all give important clues. You may also want to dig up a plant to see what kinds of roots it has. Is it a taproot or shallow rooted? Maybe it’s a rhizome or a bulb. These are very important clues.
Not Using the Internet
Real books are an old standby when it comes to needing to identify plants.
Without the internet, you’d need to use identification books like Peterson Field Guides. One of the ones I use often is by Steven Foster & James A. Duke, the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants & Herbs.
Another good book to have on hand, if you’re in Arkansas, is Carl G. Hunter’s Wildflowers of Arkansas. It’s out of print now, but you can find it still through Amazon or on eBay or from a used book store.
And yet another favorite is Wildman Steve Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants.
It’s a good idea to have real books stashed away somewhere to help you identify plants in the event there is no internet available to use.
When I’m using books, I usually flip through all of the pages to familiarize myself with how it’s organized. Then unless the book is “keyed” I start from the beginning and look for clues.
If the book is keyed, which means it gives you starting points for things like leaf structure and leads you on yes-no answers to the most likely categories. For example, it’ll ask if the leaves are opposite. If yes, follow through to the next question. Depending on the answers it directs you to the next question, and so on. This is where understanding some of the botanical terms will help a lot.
Other Internet Resources
Although not an Ozark site, here’s a one that uses keys to help with identification: https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/simple/. Many of our plants here are present there as well, so it could still be useful. But the main reason I am referring it is to show how a keyed book or search works.
I’ve been a member of a FB group about the native plants of Arkansas and the members of this group are always willing and ready to help with identification. If you’re on Facebook, a group for the plants of your area is another resource you might like to try.
Have fun in your quest to identify plants!
If you have questions or information to add about this topic, please comment. If there is a lot of interest in this introductory post, I will do another more detailed post on the types of terms that I use need to know most often, especially leaf arrangement and structure, and a little more on how understanding the Latin can help you identify plants more easily.