Plant ID Tips: Get to Know the Plants in Your Yard

By Jacob Johnston
August 11, 2016
boy with leaf. Photo by Devan King/The Nature Conservancy.Photo by Devan King/The Nature Conservancy.

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.

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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.

Phyllanthus acidus (left) and Sauripus androgynous (right) are both commonly known as Star Gooseberry, despite being different plants.Phyllanthus acidus (left) and Sauripus androgynous (right) are both commonly known as Star Gooseberry, despite being different plants.

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.

Garlic mustard by Algot Runeman.Garlic mustard by Algot Runeman.

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.

Most North American trees have alternate leaves. The short list of opposite-leaved species can be summarized in an easy-to-remember acronym: MADCap Horse, which stands for Maple, Ash, Dogwood, CAPrifoliaceae (which includes viburnums, honeysuckles and some vines), and Horsechestnut. If your mystery plant has opposite leaves and branches, you can know it will most likely be one of these. Of course, there are a couple of exceptions; it is nature after all.

MADCAP HORSE

Most North American trees have alternate leaves. The short list of opposite-leaved species can be summarized in an easy-to-remember acronym: MADCap Horse, which stands for Maple, Ash, Dogwood, CAPrifoliaceae (which includes viburnums, honeysuckles and some vines), and Horse chestnut. If your mystery plant has opposite leaves and branches, you can know it will most likely be one of these. Of course, there are a couple of exceptions; it is nature after all.

Apps for Identifying Plants

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)Photo by Devan King/The Nature Conservancy.

Yes, there are apps for plant ID. Image-recognition technology and crowdsourcing information have enabled the emergence of mobile apps for identifying plants. Many, like Leafsnap and GardenAnswers, allow you to upload a photo of your mystery plant and computer software will (try) to match it with known images, offering a selection of possibilities from most-likely to less-likely. Some apps, like Plantifier, also start with an uploaded photo, but rather than relying on an algorithm to match the plant to its likely species, the image is shared with other members of the community of users for help identifying the species. While accuracy varies significantly based on who answers your request and the time frame for responses may be instant to never, there is an extensive collection of previously answered queries that you can search through. iPflanzen is an app similar to a field guide which will require you to input trait information about your mystery plant (like the traits described above). As the information is entered, the app begins to display possibilities. The accuracy of these apps, however, can be limited by geographic region and by the selective database they draw from.

Search Online

There are many online plant identification resources. Some, like SimpleKey, provide a system which guides the user through a series of questions about the unknown plant and provides suggestions as you answer. Identify that Plant is another website with extensive resources on plant identification including features to help you master the skill through training seminars, Facebook posts, and email quizzes. Other gardening sites, such as Dave’s Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center have extensive databases of detailed plant information with sophisticated search and filter tools to help you confirm your identification

Field Guides

Plant field guides. Photo by Jacob Johnson.Photo by Jacob Johnson.

The old-fashioned method of plant identification relies on a field guide with a dichotomous key. A dichotomous key leads you through a series of yes or no questions about a plant’s appearance. Use of a key like this may require a close look at some of the plant’s traits and a small hand lens will be helpful. Having a collection of several guides for different kinds of plants, like one for regional trees and shrubs, and another just for local wildflowers will narrow your possible selections and make identification easier. Take note though as some guides are seasonal -a wildflower guide may rely on flower color and structure to ID the plant, but if the plant doesn’t have flowers at the moment you are trying to ID it, then that guide will be less useful.

Winter Tree/Shrub ID

Ash tree in winter. Photo by Tim Haynes.Ash tree in winter. Photo by Tim Haynes.

It is often easier to identify plants by their leaves, but in the winter many trees and shrubs are leafless. Woody plants in winter can be identified by a number of consistent features that are not too difficult to observe. These include leaf scars, buds, and pith. You can determine your plant’s branching or leaf pattern by looking at the leaf scars on the branch. This is where last year’s leaf fell off. The shape of the scar is unique to each species and can give clues to its identity. A winter branch will also show an end bud and lateral buds which are the beginnings of next year’s new growth. These buds are usually protected by various styles of bud scales. Pith is the tissue inside the center of the stem and can viewed by slicing away the top half of a branch. Pith can be either solid, hollow, or variously chambered, see the diagram above for an example. The appearance and location of these features, in combination, can provide confident plant ID at times of year when leaves or flowers are not present.

You can do this!

Pro Tip

If you know the genus of the plant you are trying to identify, type that in and use the provided list to give you an idea of the various of species there are. Now you have scientific names to use for searching the internet or a field guide!

Plant Identification can have a steep learning curve but it gets easier the more you know. After you start to recognize what makes an oak an oak, or a maple a maple, then you only have to figure out which specific species it is; you are halfway there! Then, you will find, many plants can be quickly identified by, single, easily observable traits. For example, the young ecologist above is checking the leafstalk on this maple leaf for a milky sap, a sure sign that it is a Norway Maple because no other maple has that milky sap. You will learn tips and tricks like this, from nurseries, other gardeners, or online, as you go about your search. For fun and practice try an online quiz or go for a hike or walk and collect some samples to spend some time at home with a field guide. Learning the names of plants is like being introduced to new friends and once you are familiar with them, and their “personalities” you can recognize them even in a crowd of other vegetation.

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