When I first started learning about plants, I loved the idea of foraging for wild foods while helping to appreciate and understand nature on a much deeper level.
But as you may have noticed, plants can also be incredibly intimidating!
In fact, it’s perfectly normal for every new plant lover to occasionally experience that mixture of awe & confusion when faced with the great wall of green.
There’s just so much to learn about plants!
- What are all these amazing plants I see around me?
- What basics do I need to know about plants to get started?
- How do I find their names?
- Where do I look? Where should I go?
- What plants should I start with?
- What steps do I follow?
So if you ever find yourself wondering how to get started with plants, today’s plant guide is all for you!
Let’s start with some basics…
Plant Basics: What Do You Need To Know About Plants?
When you’re first getting started with plants, the main thing to know is that all plants are made of component parts like flowers, stems, leaves, roots & seeds that vary the individual appearance according to species.
Careful observation of these basic plant patterns is how botanists (people who study plants) are able to quickly & accurately identify a plant’s species with just a few moments of study.
Let’s take some examples of the most important plant basics and I’ll show you how plant experts use these to sort plants into simple yet logical categories:
1. Branching Patterns
Branching patterns are the particular arrangement of leaves and branches as they emerge off the main plant stalk.
All plants have a specific branching pattern that helps us categorize that plant into high level groupings based on appearance.
For example: Some plants have leaves and stems that branch in alternating patterns off the plant, while others branch off in pairs as shown in the following image.
Branching patterns are one of the simplest botanical characteristics that anyone can easily observe within the first few seconds of encountering any new plant. This also happens to be extremely useful for identification.
Two other common branching patterns include basal leaves & whorled branching as shown here.
2. Flowers (Type, color, # of petals)
Because they’re so distinctive, flowers are another useful traits for learning about plants whenever they’re in season. These are designed to attract insects and spread pollen so they can procreate with other compatible plants.
All plants have flowers which come in many different shapes, colors, sizes & arrangements that give us useful clues as to the identity of that plant.
Similar to other botanical patterns, flowers can be categorized into species & families according to plainly observable characteristics such as:
- How many petals are there?
- What color is the flower?
- Are the petals united or separate?
- How many stamens (little pollen rods inside the flower) are there?
- Is the flower symmetrical or asymmetrical?
- Are you seeing flower clusters or individual flowers?
Obviously, flowers are incredibly useful for learning the plants, but you don’t want to rely on just flowers because they only occur during specific seasons & conditions.
3. Stems (shape, texture, thorns)
In many cases, the stems and branches of a plant also have distinctive features we can use to more easily identify plants.
Here are some good questions to help you observe and classify a plants stem:
- What shape is the stem? (square vs round)
- Is it hollow or pithy?
- Is the stem composed of wood or is it herbaceous?
- Does the stem have thorns?
- Is it hairy or smooth?
- What color is it?
4. Leaves (shape, texture, size)
The great thing about leaves is that aside from possible dormancy during winter, these are pretty much always present and ready to be observed.
A few characteristics to look for in plant leaves:
- Some leaves are big, some leaves are small.
- Some are waxy, others are covered in tiny hairs.
- Some have jagged edges, while others are smooth.
- Some have veins that intersect, while others have veins that run parallel
- Some have little color splotches that form distinct patterns.
Leaves are often the first thing people try to look at, but this is also one of the most challenging aspects of plants to rely on alone.
Whenever possible, try to combine your observations of leaves with more a complete picture that includes flowers, stems & branching patterns and you’ll have much better success.
5. Seeds/Fruit (size, shape, quantity)
All plants must also have a strategy for spreading their seeds and continuing their genetic line.
In many cases, these fruits or seeds have extremely obvious appearances that can help us learn about the plant.
Some common seed distribution strategies used by plants include:
- Beans & seed pods
- Berries & fruit
- Fluffy wind sails that carry seeds long distances
- Seeds with sharp pokers that stick to fur so they can be carried by animals
Plants also vary widely in the number of seeds they produce, from just a small handful to many hundreds of seeds in a single plant!
Best Way To Learn Your Plants Fast (4 Steps To Identify Any Plant)
Success with learning the plants really just comes down to having a good process for learning.
So now that you know the most important plant traits to look for, let’s explore 4 easy steps to help you practice and really start making great progress on your plant journey:
1. Focus on ONE Plant at a Time
The first step to learning about plants simply requires high quality observation of natural patterns.
The best way to do this is to focus on one plant at a time. This will ensure you aren’t overwhelming your senses with too much complexity.
Simply choose one individual plant to focus on for these 4 steps and you will progress much faster.
When you’re done with the first plant, you can always come back and repeat the process with another!
2. Observe Thoroughly
The next step is to spend at least 5-10 minutes with that one plant, observing from every possible perspective.
Perhaps the biggest mistake people make when learning about plants is trying to go too fast. You need to give yourself time to get close and really study every possible detail you can about this plant.
- If the plant is low to the ground. Get down on your hands and knees. Try to get your face within 12 inches of that plant, or even closer!
- Then pick a starting point and allow your eyes to slowly travel around the entire plant, carefully tracing the edges and looking for patterns.
- What makes this plant unique?
- How would you describe it to someone who can’t see?
Make sure you devote time to carefully studying the branching pattern, flowers, stems, leaves, and any fruits or seeds that may be present.
3. Make Notes Or Sketch The Plant
Now that you’ve properly observed the plant, the next step is to make a few notes about what you just observed.
Putting your observations on paper will ensure that you’re not cheating yourself or being lazy in your observation.
You want to describe (and/or sketch):
- The branching pattern
- The flower (if present)
- The leaves
- The stems
- The fruit (if present)
I even made a plant ID journal you can use like a checklist.
As you make these field notes, you may suddenly realize you failed to observe something important in step 2. This will remind you to look closer.
It’s also okay if you want to snap a few photos. However don’t let your camera become an excuse for laziness. If you want to get good with plants, you need to develop the visual acuity to see these patterns for yourself without a camera!
You should now have enough detailed information about that plant to follow up with a bit of research.
Do this by taking your detailed plant description from step 3 and start looking through local resources like field guides to wildflowers, wild edibles, shrub ID & other plant guides for your area.
Plant guides organize species information according to characteristics like branching patterns, flower color & other growth patterns exactly like you just observed in the previous steps.
- I’ve also had pretty good success typing my plant descriptions from step 3 into google and seeing what comes up (remember to include your location in the search).
- Forums & Facebook groups can be useful too, with many knowledgeable people who can help you identify your species.
Now that you know the right steps to follow, it’s all just a matter of practice! So let’s talk about finding great locations to practice…
Where To Start Learning About Plants?
In general, the best place to start learning about plants is right outside your own home. This can be in the backyard or at a nearby park. The most important thing is to choose somewhere convenient.
This is because for best results, learning plants requires consistency and repetition (especially when you’re first starting out).
This also means we gain the fastest progress by starting with plants that are extremely common and already growing right around your own home!
The more convenient your location, the faster & easier you’ll learn. Then once you’re comfortable with the most common plants close to home, you’ll be ready to branch out further afield with more confident skills.
More great places to find a wide variety of common plants include:
- Fields & meadows
- Forests (deciduous and coniferous)
- Human landscape around homes
- Hiking trails
- Orchards & local farms
Best Plants To Start Learning? (5 Plants To Start Your Journey)
It’s always best to start with plants that are extremely common in your local area. Focus on learning the most common plants first, and you’ll progress much faster.
Common plants give you the opportunity to build up your observation & identification skills in a relatively simple environment.
You’ll also discover if your intent is to eventually use plants for food or medicine, the most common plants also provide the greatest opportunities because they’re so abundant and easy to find!
So to get you started on the right foot, let’s take a look at 5 plants that are extremely common, easy to identify and also have useful applications.
Many people think they know dandelion… but have you ever really studied the dandelion plant from bottom to top?
- Do you know how to identify dandelion without the flowers?
- Did you know that dandelion has common lookalikes such as hawkweed and coltsfoot that are frequently mistaken for dandelion?
- Have you ever tried eating a dandelion leaf or flower? (Yes they’re edible!)
Dandelions will teach you a lot about plants, so I highly recommend knowing this one inside and out.
Clover is such an easy plant to identify!
The leaves come in little sets of three and have characteristic white splotches that make them pop out. This plant will teach you to recognize flower clusters, as each flower head has dozens of tiny little pea flowers.
The almost universal familiarity of this plant makes it perfect for beginning your studies in plants.
It doesn’t really matter whether you find red clover or white clover. There are many different types of clover and they all have similar appearances.
Clover flowers are quite tasty and can be used for tea.
Overall, mint plants are some of the most common and easy-to-identify plants in the world.
Their irregular flowers are often white, pink or purple, growing in clusters of dozens on each stalk.
The jagged edged leaves are a perfect example of opposite branching, with a distinctly square stem. These are among the most useful plants in the world for edible and culinary delights.
Look for these in herb gardens and wild versions growing in lawns.
4. Wild Roses
Wild roses are amazingly common and easy to identify. Roses have 5 distinct petals and jagged leaflets, followed later in the season by conspicuous fruits that are often highly edible.
These are a common shrub (with woody stalks & branches) growing alongside railways, hiking trails & farmland.
5. Wild Carrot
Wild carrot plants are incredibly common, and it’s very likely you have these close to your home. The often grow along the edges of roads or in old regenerating farm fields.
This plant also has several highly poisonous lookalikes, so it’s extremely important to be cautious and well-informed about how to identify this plant.
I did a more thorough exploration of wild carrot in my video on how to identify the parsley family.
How To Go Deeper With Plants…
Other plants I highly recommend learning are any poisonous plants in your area.
You can find local government lists of common poisonous plants by searching for “poisonous plants” and “Your location”. This is important for all plant lovers to make sure you keep yourself safe.
I also wrote another post on 12 types of plants that everyone should know. It’s all based on learning the most common plants first, while focusing on species that also have valuable uses!
Start building up your plant skills with the most common plants first. Ask lots of good questions and pretty soon you’ll be ready to tackle increasingly more rare and specialized plants.
Just remember: Each new plant you learn makes it a little bit easier to learn your next plant. Have fun out there. I’m rootin’ for ya!
I just ordered your Nature journal. I live in Australia, so many of the plants/animals/birds etc you mention are not found here but I love what you are doing.
At present, I have just started another study course which takes up a lot of my time, but one day, I will get more deeply into your programs. They all sound really interesting. Keep up the wonderful work, Brian. God knows we need to get closer to nature, to understand her better, and live as part of her, with love and respect for all forms of life. Best wishes. Tosca
Brian Mertins says
Great to hear from you Tosca! I’ve had a few students in Australia over the years and it’s always so much fun to hear about the fascinating wildlife in your part of the world.
Even though the precise species are different, you’ll find a lot of the same behaviors & ecological patterns apply just as well in your area.
Since nature awareness is cross-cultural (and even cross-species!) the same fundamental techniques used to discover nature in North America also work everywhere else.
If you ever need help with applying the methods to your specific area, just send me an email and I’ll get you pointed in the right direction!