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How to identify plants

02/11/2012 in internet, pet peeves

Have you ever tried to get an interesting plant identified?
This seems simple enough, right?

pieces of the plant

…Tear off a leaf, stick it in the middle of a book, and when we remember where we put the leaf (for safe-keeping), take the leaf over to our local plant expert, and ask them what it came from.
hellebore flower
Or… pull a flower off the plant, and place the flower on a neutral background, take a picture, and get an answer from the plant expert.

I wish I was kidding about the above methods that people have used to get a plant identified…

Plant identification isn’t that simple. There are many plants with similar leaves, similar flowers.


To get a good id, we need a close up pic of the flower, and a pic of the whole plant which shows leaf detail. If the plant is fairly common, that might be enough.

Sometimes the pictures aren’t enough to jar the memory of our local plant expert, and google is required.

search terms

I can often get a list of likely plants from google by using flower colour, bloom time, and area found.
cat-briar leaf
Sometimes we need a good botany glossary, and use leaf shapes as our search term. Most plant encyclopedias come with a leaf shape glossary included…

here’s a leaf glossary from¬† (8 page pdf).

The thing about google searching our plants, is that it can take up days of looking, and as long as we’re enjoying the discovery of other interesting plants on the way, learning is a good thing.

wildflower websites

I have some fave wildflower sites for plant identification, which include the following:

providing enough information

Eventually, we reach the point of posting our intriguing discovery online and asking informed people for an id. This is where having good photos, and knowing something about the plant comes in handy. For instance, was the plant in shade, full sun? In dry sand, heavy clay, in a low wetland, on a highland bluff? Was the plant a shrub, tree, vine, or forb? These are all important considerations in plant identification.

A couple of good places for asking for help include:

botanicalgarden forum

All Things

plantswap forum


Sometimes, when we have found something that is unusual, it takes posting at a few different sites, with different people making guesses, and nobody comes close… Don’t give up hope, there are a lot of sites with plant id threads, and a lot of friendly people happy to venture a guess, or spend some time trying to track down that elusive plant.

Or just ask me…
I know a lot of plants… :)

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8 responses to How to identify plants

  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog. :) I had to come check yours out. I will have to visit some of those sites you mentioned. I’ve lived here for two years, and there are SO many plants growing in my pastures and yards I don’t know yet. With all my livestock, it’s important to identify the plants growing out there. A few are poisonous, but some native plants make great forage. Funny you should mention what you did … I do have a few plants I’ve tried to get identified and no one knows what they are. If they range into those areas, maybe I’ll find them. Sites like that for my location are how I’ve identified all the ones I know so far. But I promise not to send you a shriveled up leaf and ask you what it came from, LOL. ;) Have a great day!

    • stone said on 02/14/2012

      I’m having difficulty figuring out your location. I posted regional specific wildflower id sites, although some of the “post a query” sites have world wide members.
      I need to work on my links some more… The gallery in my navigation is separate from the blog. The galleries I wanted you to have a look at were the year in review posts.

  2. I’d like to know if any of those websites have photos that show what a plant looks like when it first comes up from seed so that I could distinguish it from weeds?

    • stone said on 02/19/2012

      There are several websites that have seedling pictures. I will have to locate some of those for you…
      I’ll add them as I find them.
      Thanks for the request!

      You do know that I espouse never pulling a plant that hasn’t been positively identified, I hope… Be sure to read the top 8 reasons there’s no flowers in my garden

      I found this weed guide from Virginia tech.
      Just remember that your weed could well be a wildflower in disguise, and that beautiful plant that you picked up at the nursery could easily turn into an invasive exotic thug…

      Just spotted this seedling guide:

  3. I recommend good field guides to weeds and wildflowers that have actual photos. Once when I couldn’t find my wildflower in any guide nor could I match it up to online pictures by flower color I wrote to a university speclialist who immediately responded with an ID for Elephantapus tomentosus growing at woods’ edge that I described in detail: leaves, flowers and all. It’s easier to identify something with unusual characteristics like tricorn shaped seed pods and little lavendar flowers and a big leaf lying flat to the ground.

    I don’t recommend bothering botanists unnecessarily, but I had exhausted my limited resources at that time — it was before blogs and online sources were plentiful.

    • stone said on 02/29/2012

      Good point… Let’s all take along our fave reference books on nature hikes.

      I actually used to have a couple of Audubon field guides to wildflowers that I took with me everywhere. The problem with field guides…. is that there are always a number of obvious plants they miss.

      I run into this problem with wildflower sites also. My list of sites is by no means comprehensive, it often takes visiting a number of wildflower sites, and weed id sites… (which I still need to link to), and still come up empty-handed for an id….

  4. Nicole said on 04/27/2013

    I am a complete novice and am trying to care for a few plants I have in the proper way. Would you please inform me on how to ID them? Thank you! Nicole

    • stone said on 06/10/2013

      I’d be happy to help you id your plants… If I could see them… Do you have a photobucket account? Have you posted them at a plant forum?

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