Plant identification… what plant is that?
Have you ever tried to master this skill?
Plants are truly one of the most important knowledge skills when it comes to being in nature.
But it also tends to be one of the most common challenges that prevents aspiring naturalists from creating truly satisfying relationships with the outdoors.
Perhaps you can relate to the following sentiment:
All these plants look the same to me. There’s too many. It’s like this big wall of green that I just can’t seem to penetrate.”
Well, if that sounds familiar, you’ll be glad to know it’s not just you.
Most aspiring naturalists have had the experience of finding a new plant outside, only to be completely and utterly stumped when they try to look it up.
At times it can seem like the plant you’re looking for isn’t even in the field guide… but you know what?
The problem is not the field guide!
The problem is that you haven’t trained your senses to observe plant identification patterns.
And that’s why today I’d like to give you the “Plant Identification Cheat Sheet”
It’s a totally free to use resource that will train your senses to spot the 8 most important identification features of any plant.
These 8 plant ID clues are the whole reason why every plant probably looks the same to you (unless you’re looking for these 8 clues).
But first, here’s why you should pay attention to plants…
Here’s Why Everyone Should Study Plants
Everyone should have some knowledge of plants.
Even if you don’t intend on ever being a plant specialist… there are many reasons why you might still want to take plants seriously.
Being able to confidently identify plants is something you should definitely learn if you spend any amount of time outside in the natural world.
The payoffs in terms of safety & harm prevention in the wild, conservation & stewardship, and overall enjoyment are just some of the benefits of being a full-on plant geek.
Naturalists who really master the awareness skill of plant identification:
- Open the doors to exciting adventures in wildcrafting, wild edibles & herbal medicine.
- Experience a dramatic leap in animal tracking skills by being able to quickly spot diet & habitat clues in the local environment.
- Are far more likely to survive and thrive during a survival situation.
- Make better decisions about how to care for their backyard.
- Experience an overall deeper feeling of intimacy and connection with the natural world.
- Feel more intuitively aware of subtle changes in season, weather & ecology.
And if you’re an educator or mentor of people in nature, then knowing how to identify plants will dramatically improve your ability to inspire and motivate your students to learn and connect with the outdoors.
There’s something for everyone, and truly all the best naturalists have a deep grounding in how to identify their local plants.
But it doesn’t need to be difficult or complex.
Connecting with plants is actually very simple to do.
Plant Identification Made Simple
Learning a new plant is like forming a life-long relationship.
I find that very often when people are searching for the names of plants, what they’re really seeking on a deeper level is connection with plants.
You can think about this in terms of human relationships.
Let’s imagine that you meet someone new. You shake their hand and learn their first name.
But does that mean you truly know that person?
Of course not! Because people are more than just their names!
To really know a person takes time. You have to interact repeatedly and get to know all the little stories & details.
And little by little, the relationship grows deeper.
Eventually at the deepest levels of that relationship you know the person so well that can you even tell what they’re thinking & feeling just by looking at their face.
You can pick their voice out of a crowd. You know what they’re going to say before they say it.
Overall you get more of an intuitive sense about who they are beyond the surface.
It’s the same thing with plants.
You need to take the necessary time and get to know a plant before you discover it’s true identity.
In actual practice, sometimes knowing the name of a plant is not as important as you might think… it’s simply the natural result of building a relationship.
That’s really what the plant identification cheat sheet will help you do.
Most people get stuck because they don’t know how to build real relationships with plants.
So let’s focus on building your relationship with plants.
Why Is It So Hard To Identify Plants?
Most people have almost no experience with the plant kingdom.
But to someone who has been looking at plants their whole life, the process is really not difficult at all!
It’s just that you’ve never trained your eyes to look for the important keys to plant identification.
This is really the main reason why plant identification seems hard.
It’s because you lack certain plant awareness & observation skills.
This means the ability to quickly sort plants into broad categories based on plainly observable features of the plant itself.
But observation & awareness skills can be easily developed.
For example, in my article on tips for when you need help identifying plants, I explained how some plants have leaves that emerge from a stem opposite from each other… like peppermint.
Notice how the leaves comes off the stem in pairs immediately opposite each other. That’s opposite branching, and it’s a great observation to make about any plant.
Other plants have leaves that emerge from a stem alternate from each other, like blueberry.
In this example, notice how the leaves alternate one by one up either side of the branches.
Alternate vs opposite is just one of the 8 identification clues covered in the plant ID process.
If all you do is look for this one feature, you will instantly be much closer to knowing the identity of that plant.
But there’s more to it than this.
How The Plant Identification Cheat Sheet Works
I’d like to first explain how the cheat sheet works…
Then I’ll give you the link so you can download the actual resource and use it to grow your plant ID skills.
In a nutshell… the plant identification cheat sheet is a simple checklist and journaling process to help you observe all the important plant features you’ll need in order to make a confident identification.
It ensures that you’re doing the observation part correctly.
Most people simply don’t know how to look at a plant and make objective observations.
Here’s how most people approach learning plants:
- They see a plant they don’t recognize
- They go to a field guide and try to look it up
But the problem is that very often you haven’t actually LOOKED closely enough at the plant in order to know what you’re looking for!
You really need to do an extra step if you want to consistently find any plant in a field guide.
Do this instead:
- You see a plant you don’t recognize in the field
- Observe the patterns of that plant from every possible angle (using the plant ID cheat sheet)
- Then go to a field guide and look it up with confidence
If you’ve ever had problems trying to identify plants, it’s probably because you weren’t being thorough enough with your observations.
Observation is typically the part that’s lacking.
We need to make sure you’re actually opening your eyes and carefully observing the key features of any plant you want to learn.
You do still have to go outside and find some plants to practice with… And you will still have to look it up in a local field guide in order to find the exact species.
But all the heavy lifting will be done if you simple fill out this plant identification cheat sheet.
So here it is. Download the cheat sheet here – Plant ID Cheat Sheet
And now I’m going to walk you through it.
Eight Identification Clues
The Plant identification cheat sheet works by having you follow 2 simple steps:
Step 1 – You go outside and choose one individual plant to focus on.
This is pretty self explanatory.
Step 2 – Answer 8 simple multiple choice questions and draw a sketch of the plant
To help you identify any plant you find outside, start by answering the 8 multiple choice questions along the left hand side.
If you don’t know how to answer these questions, it’s okay… just keep reading. I’m going to show you lots of examples later on this page.
It’s also not necessary to answer every question, but the more questions you answer, the easier it will be to positively identify your plant.
Some questions you’ll only be able to answer during certain seasons, so coming back to the same plant at different times of year is strongly encouraged.
These 8 questions will require you to observe carefully… probably more carefully than you’ve ever looked at plants before.
You might need to get down on your knees to inspect small details. This is part of the magic because it helps you observe things your eyes have never seen before.
Please be very cautious about touching or inhaling pollen from plants you are not familiar with.
There are some plants that can harm you just by touching your skin.
There are some plants such as certain members of the parsley family that can kill you if you so much as forget to wash you hands after handling them.
So please be careful and familiarize yourself with any local hazards you might encounter.
How Many Plants Can You Learn With This Cheat Sheet?
This exercise is designed for a huge category of plants called, “Flowering plants”.
Luckily, the vast majority of species on planet earth are actually classified as “Flowering plants”. It covers literally hundreds of thousands of plants.
The cheat sheet won’t help you with things like ferns, mosses, horsetails, or coniferous plants.
But almost everything else you find outside will fall into the category of “Flowering plants”, and therefore this cheat sheet will help you cover a lot of ground.
A Few Words About Flowers
Be aware that some flowering plants have very inconspicuous flowers.
It might not be obvious at first whether a plant has flowers, or it might not be flowering in the current season.
The plant identification cheat sheet will enable you to start the process of gathering information regardless of time of year.
Much of the information about a plants identity can be gathered just from the leaves, branching patterns & other details.
It is likely however, for confident identification that you will need to inspect the flower.
If the plant you want to identify is not currently flowering, then you should keep watching it and wait for the flower to emerge.
Important Plant Terminology
The rest of this page will be devoted to showing you examples of the 8 identification clues.
If you missed the download above, here it is again – Plant ID Cheat Sheet
If you get stuck on a question and don’t know an answer… hopefully these examples will help.
If you really want to go all out with your plant skills, there are more plant terms & geeky things to learn in Thomas Elpel’s book – Botany in a Day. It’s a truly superb book and got me started on the right foot.
This page will focus on the 8 identification clues that tend to be most helpful and likely to lead to a confident ID of any plant.
We’ll start with question #1 – Is Your Plant A Monocot Or Dicot?
Monocots VS ‘Dicots’
These are two very broad categories of plants.
If you were to take all the flowering plants in the world, and divide them into the 2 largest categories, you would have one group of ‘dicots’ and one group of monocots.
To be a bit more accurate, the term ‘dicot’ is actually made up of 3 smaller groups of plants.
For the purpose of identification in the field, I’ve always found lumping them as ‘dicots’ to be incredibly helpful.
Here’s how you can tell monocots from ‘dicots’.
First – Look at the leaf veins
Monocots have parallel veins like this grass.
Grass is one of the most abundant monocots on the planet.
Next time you go outside, see if you can find a nice thick stem of grass and look at the veins. Notice the veins are running parallel. That tells you it’s a monocot.
You’ll also notice parallel veins on common spring bulbs like tulips, daffodils and many other plants.
Dicots on the other hand, have perpendicular or intersecting veins like this maple.
The intersecting veins of ‘dicot’ plants are definitely the most common vein pattern you’ll find, and it’s a great indicator to look for.
Second – Count the petals
Monocots have flowers with petals in sets or multiples of three like this spiderwort plant.
When monocots come with 6, 12 or even more petals, they are often still segmented in sets of 3.
‘Dicots’ follow a different pattern. They tend to have flowers with petals in sets of 4 or 5.
Here’s a cinquifoil with 5 petals.
And here’s a mustard with 4 petals. They’re both ‘dicots’.
With just a tiny bit of practice looking for these differences in the field, very soon you’ll be able to look at any plant and quickly determine whether it’s a ‘dicot’ or monocot.
And with this one simple distinction you’ve already eliminated dozens of possible plants.
Herbaceous VS Woody
This is not necessarily a super technical term in botany, but I’ve always found this distinction to be very helpful in plant identification.
It simply means that some plants make wood that lasts through winter and builds year after year, like any average shrub or tree. Look outside your window and you’ll probably see one!
Other plants are entirely herbaceous… meaning they completely die back each fall, like this charming little comfrey plant.
This feature is quite easy to spot once you start looking for the presence of wood, and it can be a key identification feature in field guide to plants.
There are 4 main branching patterns you need to know in order to use the plant identification cheat sheet.
#1 – Opposite Branching
This is what we already discussed above using the example of a mint plant.
It simply means that the leaves, branches & buds all emerge off the stalk in sets of two, immediately opposite each other.
#2 – Alternate Branching
We covered alternate branching too with our blueberry example. Blueberry plants have leaves & branches that emerge off the stem one-by-one in alternate directions.
This is probably the most common branching pattern you’ll encounter, so learn it well.
#3 – Whorled
Whorled branching is when the leaves & branches emerge off the stem in bunches that completely circle the whole stalk.
One of my favorite plants with whorled leaves is called Cleavers/Bedstraw. Notice that it almost looks like opposite branching, but it’s not just 2 leaves splitting off.
Whorled branching is one of the least common branching patterns, but you’ll still likely encounter it quite regularly. Don’t mix it up with opposite!
#4 – Basal
Basal leaves simply means that there’s no main stem.
In this case, all the leaves and the flowerhead emerge directly from the base.
Here’s an example what dandelion can do when you don’t pull it out.
Notice that each leaf is emerging from directly the base. There’s no stem to be seen except when the flower shoots up.
Bonus points if you can tell whether the above plants are herbaceous or woody!
Simply look at your plant and check off which branching pattern you see. It’s that simple.
Regular & Irregular Flowers
The next important thing to observe is whether your plant has regular or irregular flowers.
This pattern obviously means you need to look at your plant while during it’s flowering season. But it’s super easy to spot.
Regular flowers tend to be quite symmetrical, with the petals evenly spaced around the outside.
If you ask a child to draw a flower, it’s the typical flower shape that almost everyone will draw if you ask them to draw a flower.
It looks like this:
Notice how symmetrical and regular this flower is.
Irregular flowers on the other hand, don’t fit the typical “flower” shape. There can be tremendous variation, and it will stand out easily as being unique.
Irregular flowers come in all different shapes and sizes. There’s no consistent pattern amongst them. The key thing to look for is that it doesn’t look like your average flower.
Check out these pea flowers.
Other notable plants with irregular flowers include touch-me-nots, bleeding hearts and pansies.
United VS Separate Flowers
The next thing to look at is whether the flower petals are united or separate.
United simply means the petals are all connected.
Like this morning glory flower.
The united pattern is very obvious in some plants, but sometimes it’s much more subtle.
At first glance, a plant may seem to have separate petals, but on closer inspection you discover they’re actually all connected at the base.
On the other hand, separate petals will attach to the plant individually.
It means you can pull off an individual petal without any noticeable effect to the flower.
A good example of this would be members of the rose family like this apple blossom:
This identification feature is frequently very helpful.
So check it out and tick off the box that matches.
A Quick Note About The Aster Family:
The one place where separate vs united petals gets confusing is when you encounter a plant in the Aster family (which is a huge family of plants that includes dandelions, daisies and sunflowers).
You’ve probably seen that game people play with daisies where they pull off the petals one-by-one and say,
He loves me. He loves me not.”
At first glance these might look like separate petals, when what you’re actually seeing is a composite of many smaller flowers.
When you see a flower with a fan shape of what looks like numerous individual petals like this:
These are not actually separate petals.
It does however tell you that your plant is in the aster family, which will also help to narrow your search.
Count The Number Of Petals
This was one of the big aha moments for me as I was learning to identify plants.
Some plants have 4 petals. Some plants have 5 petals. Some plants have 3. You’ll also find plants with much more than this, or even no petals!
But a 5 petaled plant will always have 5 petals. And a 4 petaled plant will always have 4 petals.
This means that if you count the petals, you’re much more likely to find the true identity of that plant, especially if it’s a weird number.
So on your cheat sheet, all you have to do is count the petals and write in the number.
One thing to be aware of here is that plants also have a part called the “sepals” that can sometimes look a lot like petals.
I don’t want to get too technical here with the differences between petals and sepals because most of the time you’ll be fine. It’s just something to be aware of.
If the numbers don’t seem to add up, then you might be counting sepals instead of petals.
Count The Stamens
Stamens are another part of the plant that sometimes helps with identification.
In the very centre of a flower, you’ll see little pollen containing rods. Those are the stamens.
How many can you count here?
If you said 6 – Great!
If you said 7 – then you probably counted the darker rod in the center. That’s the pistil, so don’t include it in your counting.
I wouldn’t say I’ve found this to be the most important id feature ever. But on rare occasions it can be the key to discovering a plant’s identity.
This is pretty self explanatory.
Just wait for the time of year when fruit or seeds are on the plant, and write a quick description of what you see. Is it berries? Is it nuts? Are the seeds very small?
Make sure to include a sketch. Sometimes the seeds/fruit are a highly efficient way of identifying plants.
Sketching is an important part of any plant journal.
After you tick off all the boxes, I highly recommend you sketch the plant.
The point here is not to create an amazing piece of art. The important thing is that it gets you to look carefully at the plant.
Just do your best, and don’t worry if your drawing isn’t a perfect representation.
There are sections to sketch the overall plant, the leaf, the flower, the seed/fruit.
If you make a sincere attempt to sketch the plant, you’ll be much more likely to find it’s true identity.
Go Look It Up!
After you’ve filled up your plant identification cheat sheet with observations, now the only thing left to do is look up your mystery plant in a field guide.
There are literally hundreds of great field guides to help you do this.
Some plant guides are organized by the color of the flower. Some are organized by plant families, and include details like branching patterns, number of petals, and type of fruit.
This can get quite complex and it takes a bit of practice to get comfortable.
Luckily, if you answered all the questions from the plant identification cheat sheet, you now have all the information you need to compare your notes with what’s in the guide!
Through process of elimination, you’ll be well on your way to finding the answer and learning your plants like a true botanical pro.
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t immediately find a plant in the field guide.
The important thing is that you’ve now taken your first step towards developing a truly meaningful relationship with that plant.
Each plant you learn makes it easier to learn the next plant.
As a general rule, it’s best to start with the simplest & most common plants first, before trying to identify plants that are more difficult or rare.
It’s also a good idea to look up the most common poisonous or hazardous plants of your bioregion, and make sure you know how to be safe.
Enjoy the Plant Identification Cheat Sheet!
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