Learning to identify plants is one of the first thing any botanist, herbalist, or naturalist will need to learn to do. Once you have the right book it is as easy as picking between two options and you will find your plant. Is it really that easy? Once you learn the vocabulary necessary to understand the two options, yes! The vocabulary can be the hard part. Today I wanted to give you a brief introduction to some of the words used in plant identification so you can use a book of your own and start to learn what is in your environment. If you want to learn more, our Plant Identification class for our Home Herbalist Study Program will be live recorded on Tuesday, August 28th, 2018. I hope you will join me at that class to learn to identify even more plants and practice your skills.
When learning plants in the United States for the first time I send people to the book Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. It is a great beginner book and has a lot of common plants in it. Even some of the beginner terms that are used in this book can be not so clear so lets look at them now.
STEP 1: Flower Type
Is it regular or irregular?
A regular flower is one that when you divide it in half along multiple axis it is the same such in the image of the phlox flower. An irregular flower can only be divided in half equally in one direction such as the sweet pea flower.
How many flower parts does it have?
Generally flowers will have a similar number of petals, sepals (under the petals), stamen (male flower part), and pistlis (female flower part). In our example here, there are 5 petals (J), 5 sepals (H), 5 stamen (K), and a 5 lobed pistil (L). We can then assume this is a regular flower with 5 parts. It is not always the case that there will be the same number of everything. In that case generally the petals and sepals are counted do estimate the flower parts used for identification purposes.
Step 2: Plant Type
If you are using Newcomb’s guide (or viewing the introductory information from the link above) you can see that the rest of the beginning identification stage is to determine more information about the leaves.
No Apparent Leaves: I think you can figure this out
Basal Leaves Only: This means that all of the leaves are coming from the ground. Two good plant examples of this are dandelion and mullein. While a mullein flower stalk may look like it has leaves those are not true leaves.
Alternate Leaves: This means that there is only one leaf at each place it connects to the stem. They tend to alternate which side of the stem they grow from.
Opposite or Whorled Leaves: This means that every time a leaf comes on a stalk there is a pair and they are opposite of each other or that there are multiple leaves all coming from the same spot, making a whorle.
Shrubs: A woody bush that is not a tall tree
Vine: A longer green stalked plant that may extend and attach itself to other plants for stability. These may have alternate, opposite, or whorled leaves as well.
Step 3: Leaf Type
Leaves have a variety of different kinds of margins, the shape on the edge of the leaf. This shape can be very specific but Newcomb’s breaks it down and makes it simple for beginners.
Leaves Entire: A smooth edge to the leaf
Leaves Toothed or Lobed: A not smooth edge to the leaf. Good examples are dandelion leaves and maple leaves.
Leaves Divided: This one is a bit more challenging. Divided leaves may appear to have many more leaves than are really there because they have leaflets, a group of leaf looking structures that together make up one leaf. A good example of this is elder or ginseng.
Grab your own copy of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, get outside, and start identifying plants today. If you are having any troubles come ask for help in our chat group.
Jillian Carnrick, founder and manager of The Dancing Herbalist, has a Masters of Science Degree in Herbal Medicine, practices as a nutritionist, and is a Certified Personal Trainer and Exercise Is Medicine Professional through the American College of Sports Medicine. The Dancing Herbalist posts on this blog every Thursday. For more of our posts, join us on Patreon. Jillian also presents regular live classes in The Dancing Herbalist’s home herbalist courses online. For more learning opportunities or to work one-on-one with Jillian with her wellness and herbal consultations visit The Dancing Herbalist.com.