Identifying Plants Correctly

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

If you are like me, I am sure you love plants, flowers, trees, and working in the garden. The joy of working in the fresh air and getting your hands dirty with soil is so refreshing. Many of you have plants in your own garden, house, community garden or know someone who has plants because they are all around us. Wouldn’t it be cool to actually know how to identify the plants correctly and by knowing the names of them you will have a better appreciation and you could use the knew found knowledge and skill and apply that to the rest of your garden plants and new gardening friends you bring home.

Today, I want to share with you some ways to help you identify plants so you can be more successful in the garden and feel good about yourself. When I first took plant identification courses in college the instructors taught me basic techniques and skills that will be introduced to you that can be used as a guide for your gardening endeavors.

The main reason to identify plants is knowing how to look at plants  and observe patterns. Observation is the basis of plant identification. When identifying plants you need to be a detective and look at the whole picture. To be able to identify a plant correctly there are several concepts that need to taken into consideration. Knowing the name of the plant is only part of the puzzle.

 When identifying a plant it is important to note the climate and region of where the plant is growing and the surrounding environment and its conditions. For instance, plants like Rosemary, many types of Salvias (Sage), Lavender, Texas Sage, and Rockrose are from regions of the world that are warm to hot, dry, and take lots of sun. While succulents and cacti are more common in desert climates with low moisture and sandy soil. On the other hand, Algae, Ferns, and tropical flowers are most common in humid and moist climates. By understanding where the plants are from it increases your familiarity with the them and is another clue towards properly identifying them.

Another technique in your arsenal of identifying plants is to observe stems and branches. Look for any distinct characteristics on the stalks and branches of the plant. These can provide clues to what the plant or group of plants might be. Stems and branches that contain hardwood are usually woody plants like trees or shrubs. So given that piece of information you know that it would not be a succulent, grass or a daisy flower. On the other hand, if the stem is soft and flexible then you can rule out that it is not a tree because it is not woody but instead it could be a plant that is more delicate like bedding plant flowers.

While observing the stems pay attention if they are thick, plump, or watery, this characteristic may indicate it is a succulent or cactus or other non woody (herbaceous) plant. To further narrow it down, does the plant have actually leaves or are they thorns? Cactus have thorns but so do lots of other plants but look at how they are arranged on the plant, most cactus have these structures situated on pads where the thorns originated from. Also make note whether the stems are like a vine, trail or are they stiff and upright. Observe the stems carefully by feeling them, notice if their is any distinctive smell while crushing the leaves and stems. Are the leaves soft, rough or furry? Many plants with stems that are square, are soft or furry, and have a pungent smell are oftentimes related to one another. Plants like Salvias (Sages), Rosemary, Mints, Thymes, Catnip, Germander, Basil, Lions Tail, and Butterfly Bush all have the same pattern characteristic that is useful in identifying them. The way the plant grows is critical in identifying a plant. The form may be mounding, upright, spreading, prostrate, columnar, vining, rounded, spiky, vase, arching, or weeping.

Another aspect in identifying plants is to pay attention to the bark. Bark is a protective layer that covers the stems of many trees and shrubs. Bark may be smooth, rough, peeling /exfoliating, red, brown, white or green. Certain plants have very recognizable bark like Birch (with white bark), Manzanita and Strawberry Tree( with red, peeling bark).

It is important to notice how the leaves look, by noting the leaf shape, color, and size you can get a better since of what the plant is. For instance, lots of tropical plants have broad, wide leaves that are dark green in color and like lots of water. On the other hand, many types plants that are non woody (herbaceous) have triangular leaves like Violets, Calla Lilly, Salvia, Mint, or Thistle. Plants with smaller leaves that are grey or grey green in color often times are drought tolerant or Mediterranean types of plants.

Certain plants may have leaves that originate form the center of the plant or they come up form the soil, these plants are usually non woody and have lance, grassy, narrow or strap shaped leaves like that of Lilly of the Nile ( Agapanthus), Day Lilly, Grasses, Society Garlic, Flax, Hyacinths, Tulips, Flax, and Lilly Turf. Many of these types of plants spread by specialized roots called rhizomes, bulbs, or tubers.

While on the subject of roots, don’t forget to check the underground portions of the plant for clues to identify them. Check the roots to see how it grows (either from rooted stems, rhizomes, bulbs, or tubers). Underground  rhizomes  expand horizontally, developing new root systems and sprouting new shoots from nodes. Common rhizomes plants include Lily Of The Valley, Asparagus, and Ginger. Bulbs have swollen underground stems similar to  tubers , but their growth patterns are different.  Daffodils , Hyacinths, and Tulips are all bulb. Bulbs grow from the base of the original bulb, while tubers develop buds on their surface, and new stems sprout from there. Many flowering plants such as Dahlias, Day lilies, Agapanthus ,Lilly Turf, Flax, and Peonies have tuberous roots.

Learn to Identify the leaf arrangement. How are the leaves placed on the stem. Some plants may have leaves that are opposite from one another, meaning that one leaf is directly across from the other. Many Salvias, Mints, Rosemary, and Lavenders have this characteristic. On the other hand, leave’s could be arranged on the stem that are alternate from one another (not directly across). Plants like Blueberries, Manzanita, Strawberry Tree ( Arbutus) all have alternate leaves.

To be able to fully identify a plant it is important to observe plants at different stages of growth and during different seasons throughout the year. For deciduous trees (ones that loose their leave during a certain time of year) you can examine closely and find the leaf scars( where the leaves once were) and note their arrangement as well as bark and overall form. These characteristics will provide you more clues to identifying the plant.

Another clue to identify plants are the fruits and flowers. A flowering plant’s berries and fruits can help you identify its species. Blue, black, and purple-skinned fruits are often edible, while green, white, and yellow berries are likely poisonous but not always. Check the flower color and number of petals to see if you’re dealing with weeds or wildflowers, some of which may be edible (like Dandelions or Chicory which have many petals). However, most plants with a compound umbrella flowers are high toxicity, which
you should avoid. Flowers may be in clusters or held signally on the plant.

Many plants can be identified by the fruits they have whether they are fleshy fruits like apples, oranges, avocados of dried fruits like nuts, capsules( on poppies) or winged fruits (on maples). With careful observation you will learn the patterns amongst plants and develop an eye for identifying them. Each family of plants has certain identifying characteristics that are common with each member of the family, this will aide in trying to identifying a plant correctly. Below are several examples of the common plant families that have patterns amongst them that aide in identifying them.

The Daisy family of plants is a large group that include plants like Mums, Gazanias, Dahlias, Sunflower, African Daisy, Asters, Dandelions, Freeway Daisy, Cosmos, Dusty Miller, Yarrow, and Artemisia. Plants in the daisy family have composite flowers that are composed of several different parts joining to form the flower that have have a central disk with radiating petals. Daisy’s have 2 types of flowers, composite flower heads that make up small disk flowers in the center which create the seeds and large outer petals
of ray flowers. Each flower has a rosette of small, thin petals surrounding a center. The flowers look like rays of a sun.

The Rose Family (Rosaceae) family of plants contain Over 2,500 species. If you have any of the following examples growing in your garden: Blackberry, Rose, Apple, Strawberry, Raspberry, Peach, Plum, Almond, Pear, and Apricot, examine carefully the flower and you will discover that the identifying characteristics in this group of plants include the flowers having 5 separate petals with numerous stamens (the male fertilizing organ of a flower, typically consisting of pollen i.e. the yellow part you see coming out o the petals.)

For identification, the most distinctive pattern of the Parsley family is the “compound umbels”. Look at the flower of Fennel, Dill, Parsley, Celery, Parsnip, Coriander, Hemlock(poisonous) or Carrot and notice how all the stems of the flower cluster radiate from a single point at the end of the stalk, kind of like an umbrella. At the end of each of these flower stems there is another umbrella of even smaller stems, hence the “compound umbrella” or “compound umbel” term. The individual flower stems look like pokes that radiate out . Also, most of the plants in this family have ferny or fine looking foliage and the leaves are alternate. The stems in this group of plants are hollow.

The plants in the Mallow family include Hibiscus, Mallow, Lavatera, Indian Mallow, and Hollyhock. These plants all have tubular flower which include 5 petals and the stamens are fused together in the middle of the flower. The yellow part (stamen) is prominently in the center. Think of the Hibiscus flower as the most recognizable flower in drawings. Another distinguishing attribute in this grouping of plants is that when you crush the flower a slimy substance is released that resembles aloe vera this substance is often used for sunburn. Most members in this family have lobed leaves.

Another group of plants called the Mustard family consists of plants like Radish, kale, Turnip, Cauliflower, Alyssum, Stock, Mustard, and Broccoli. Most of the members were bred by one species of Mustard. These plants and other plants in the Brassicaceae or Crucifer family have flowers that consist of 4 petals and 6 stamens (male part). Closer examination you will see 4 stamens that are tall and 2 that are short. So when you look closely at the flowers and see the arrangement you know you are on the right path of identifying the plant or group of plants. Mustard family plants petals are arranged in the form of an “x” or a “y.

Another attribute that I have noticed among this family is taste. The crushed leaves have one that is pungent. The final group or family of plants belong to the pea or legume family of plants. The flowers have 5 petals forming a distinctive banner, wings, and keel. The banner is a single petal with two lobes though it looks like two that are fused together. Two more petals form the wings. The remaining two petals make up the keel and are usually fused together. In other words the flowers look like 2 or 3 Petals that are up and 2 or 3 petals that are down and look like they have wings or a “banner”. The family also has Pea-like pods which are another distinctive trait when identifying this family.

Last but not least, you can use a plant identifier app. Rather than relying on being one with the plant and immersing yourself with it and really getting to know the plant. You can cheat and download a smartphone plant identification app, which uses artificial intelligence to find a specimen’s scientific name, common names, and general properties with a single photo of the plant. Yes I cheated a little,I like google lens if I am in a stump and can’t figure it out it, is not perfect but does help if I am in a bind. A word of caution, form my own experience, I tried several plant identification apps they are at best ok. I tried to identify several plants that I already know the name of and tested many times to see if the apps would work and 50 to 75% they are wrong. To me its a lazy way to identify a plant but then again I am a plant geek. If you really want to know what something is, you have the option to bring in a fresh plant sample that is identifiable with as much information you can provide to your favorite Green Thumb Nursery and we will do our best to identify the plant for you. I hope you find this information is useful and you can apply it to your daily gardening activities.

Please follow the link below to see pictures so you have a better understanding of plant characteristics which will aide in properly identifying plants.

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