Plants are a great way to explore nature. They make excellent food and can do interesting things such as warn you about upcoming weather.
But how can you learn to identify them?
Sometimes people want me to help identify a plant. My first step is always to have them describe what they saw. It's important to have some basic details in order to start narrowing things down.
But typically the results are underwhelming because folks can only describe very minimal detail. Things like: “It had big green leaves.” So here's the straight truth. You'll never be able to identify plants if you can't make basic observations about their structure. The main reason why plant identification seems hard is because people don’t really know how to look at plants and observe patterns. Observation is the basis of plant identification.
But with a bit of practice you’ll have everything ready for next time you need help identifying a plant.
Here are 5 of my best tips for identifying plants...
#1 Look At Branching Patterns
To an untrained eye all plants might look the same.
But the astute naturalist or botonist will quickly note that there are consistent patterns to help you easily lump plants into categories.
Branching patterns are one of the easiest plant identification cues to observe at all times of year... and it's often one of the only hints you get in winter. Opposite Branching
Some plants have branches and leaves that emerge from the stem immediately opposite each other. Like this mint plant...
Mint plants and their relatives have opposite branching
Notice how the leaves emerge off the stem in pairs immediately opposite each other.
Other plants are quite different because they follow a more alternating pattern like the blueberry bushes seen here...
Look carefully at the stems and notice how the leaves connect one at a time on alternating sides.
Plant branching patterns are consistent for each member of the same species (You won't ever find a blueberry plant with opposite branching).
It's an important detail to help you narrow the list. There are other types of branching patterns too, but these are the most common ones you'll find.
Keep reading because I'm going to share a resource in tip #4 to help you learn these patterns in greater detail.
#2 Count The Flower Petals
Some people don't realize that all plants do in fact have flowers.
Flowers can be very inconspicuous and sometimes only last for very short periods of time, but look carefully because this is still one of the best things to find when you need help identifying plants.
There are entire books written about the subtle differences between flower types and what they tell you about plants. The simplest way to start narrowing things down is simply to count the petals.
The number of petals on a flower can easily distinguish between many plants that otherwise might look very similar.
Some plant species have flowers with 4 or 5 petals. Other plant species have flowers with 3 or 6 petals or even more.
How many petals can you count on this charming little strawberry flower?
All strawberry flowers have 5 petals, as do their relatives like raspberries, blackberries & apple blossoms
All Strawberry flowers have 5 petals, as do their relatives like raspberries, blackberries & apple blossoms.
If you ever get stuck trying to identify a plant then one of the best tips is to try and see the flower.
But remember that not all flowers have the classic colorful look you might include in a bouquet.
If you believe you found a plant that doesn't have flowers then you probably just need to look closer or perhaps a different time of year.
Here's an example of some willow flowers that might help to expand your definition of what flowers are supposed to look like.
Many tree flowers are inconspicuous and easily missed
#3 Expand Your Focus
Even the greatest plant experts would be helpless to identify species correctly if they lack the proper information.
It's not enough to briefly look at some leaves and expect your plant mysteries to be suddenly resolved.
Leaves might still be the most obvious part of a plant, but other details can sometimes be much more important.
So the more observations you can make about a wide variety of different plant parts the more confidence you can have about what plant you're looking at.
Here are some of the main things to look for:
Stem shape and structure
Miscellaneous features like thorns, spikes or bumps
Fruits, Seeds & Nuts
Qualities of woody shrubs vs herbs (like dandelion)
Smells & Aroma of leaves/flowers
Habitat and landscape context
Sometimes it's impossible to identify a plant without looking at multiple different features. We've already discussed some of the most important ones above.
Plants don't just randomly spring up wherever they choose.
They often have very specific habitat requirements and associations with other plant communities.
This is a good thing because it helps to narrow down the possible candidates for identifying plants in the field. By remembering to look at habitat you can make the job of identifying plants much easier.
Some plants will only grow in open field habitats like this one...
Open fields create great habitat for a wide variety of plants
Other plants will be highly dependant on nearby water features in order to survive.
Such as this wetland habitat...
Wetland habitats offer a unique plant niche that often host highly specialized species
It's a pretty basic and obvious distinction, but you would be amazed by how often people don't even think to look around for habitat clues before trying to identify plants.
Don't make that same mistake! A deep forest plant will never grow in open meadows. And likewise a wetland plant will never grow in dry land conditions.
Remember to take note of a plant's habitat, climate & proximity to other vegetation and you'll be much more prepared.
So there you have 5 tips for when you need help identifying plants.