Plant ID Tips: Get to Know the Plants in Your Yard
By Jacob Johnston
August 11, 2016
How well do you know the plants in your gardens? Lots of you probably know the common names of what you’ve planted; but, what do you do when you come across something you don’t know? Pull out a book? Ask a neighbor? Visit the local nursery? Google it? In this article we will walk you through some of our recommended tactics when ID’ing plants. Rest assured though, when having difficulties with plant ID, you aren’t alone. Plants can be tricky, especially if you are new to gardening.
Knowing the common names for plants, like sugar maple or black-eyed susan, is a very good start. Many plants, however, will share a common name, like the star gooseberry, which is the common name for the radically different plants pictured here. One is a small shrub, while the other a 30 foot tall tree (imagine making that mistake in a small corner of a yard). Some plants have several common names themselves, which often leads to a different kind of confusion. Knowing a plant’s scientific name is a very helpful tool for avoiding these scenarios; and, may even help you expand your plant ID repertoire as you learn to see the similarities within a genus.
We search through a lot of images of plants using tools like Flickr to write our articles. We can get into trouble fast if we search by common name. For example, when we search for “pigweed,” several different plants show-up.
The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their proper name.~Confucius
Switch to the more specific Trianthema portulacastrum and the results get much cleaner. Using scientific names helps to ensure you are finding the right plant for the right place and also unlocks a wealth of information specific to that particular plant species.
Being familiar with morphology and growth patterns, color and timing of bloom, ideal sun and soil conditions, and the various pests your plants can be afflicted with, will not only increase the health and vigor of your garden, but may also increase the enjoyment, appreciation, and satisfaction you’ll get from it. Learning to identify the plants in your yard is the first step in a long and healthy relationship with the vegetation in your life.
The benefits of knowing the plants in your yard will also empower you to make ecological management decisions in your gardens and around your home. For example, weeding is less of a chore when you know if the culprit has a taproot and needs to be dug up or if it’s a biennial, like the garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) above, which only live for two years and you can simply cut off the flowers in their second year to prevent reseeding. Also, knowing a plant’s preferences for growing environments will guide you in relocating an ailing plant or making the correct amendments to the soil. This can reduce the the need, and the desire, to use chemical pesticides or fertilizers to remedy the problem. The right plant in the right place can make any gardeners job easier.
Plant ID Tips
Plant identification can be daunting but because the plant does not scurry or fly away, like so many other interesting things to identify, you can take your time and get to know the numerous plant traits that define it and make it what it is. Does it have a smooth or fuzzy stem? Are there four or six petals? You’ll ask yourself these and many other questions while seeking the correct identification. Once you start to become familiar with a plant and its growth habits you may begin to recognize it all around you and often in places you wouldn’t expect, which can be exciting and will help you to become more familiar with it.
There are a number of fun and interesting ways to learn about the plants in your yard. From good-old-fashioned local field guides to the latest apps, the various methods will each have their own advantages and learning curves. Most plant ID resources follow a logical path, using important key features of a plant to narrow down the selection to a few likely candidates. Knowing some descriptive traits and several of these key features will give you a good start towards the correct identification.
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