There are more than 390,000 different types of plants in the world today.
So if you want to identify plants and even practice using them in daily life, that’s an insane number of species and could get pretty overwhelming.
Luckily with the right approach, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can start learning some of the most important plants that every nature lover should know.
One of the biggest tricks is learning how to classify plants in terms of plainly observable groupings (or plant families).
Sometimes just learning one new family of plants can instantly reveal dozens of individual species growing right outside your home… and you’ll be able to recognize them all just by looking for a few simple characteristics!
This can dramatically speed up your learning curve and prepare you to develop more advanced plant knowledge in the future if desired.
Also – rather than starting with the most rare and unusual plants, the key is to always start with the most common and universal plants that are easy for beginner eyes to see.
So in this article, I’m going highlight 14 of the absolute best types of plants that every plant geek should learn early on their plant journey.
Start with these 14 different types of plants, and you should be able to progress much faster than trying to learn them all one-by-one.
1. Rose Family
Everybody knows about roses because their sweet smelling flowers play such a cherished role in poetry and romance.
But did you know plants in the rose family are also some of the most common and useful of all the plants in the world?
In fact – there’s a good chance you already know and use plants in the rose family every single day because many common fruits found in grocery stores come from the rose family.
Apples, cherries, plums, pears, blackberries, raspberries, and more… these are all delicious members of the rose family!
Since you already have a basic relationship with these plants from eating them, this is really the perfect place to start learning plants in general.
So here’s how to identify plants in the Rose family:
Early in the growing season, look for plants and trees heavy laden with white, pink, or red flowers.
Rose flowers are usually quite easy to spot at this time of year because of the stark contrast of their abundant flowers to the surrounding landscape.
Some plants in the rose family get their flowers before they even start developing leaves!
Next – Look carefully at the flowers and take a moment to count the number of petals.
All plants in the rose family have 5 petals in a symmetrical flower shape.
Additionally, if you look carefully at the center of the flower, you’ll notice rose flowers have a whole bunch of stamens (those little plant tips that distribute pollen).
Plants in the rose family usually have at least 5 – 15 stamens and are pollinated by insects like bees.
You can also gain clues to identify roses by looking at the leaves. Their leaves typically grow in an oval shape with serrated edges, and branch off the plant in an alternating pattern.
Later in the year after pollination, rose flowers are replaced by various types of fruits and berries, typically quite edible and delicious!
This basic pattern of 5 petaled flowers, alternate branching & fruit development is common to all plants in the rose family.
Many of these plants have edible or medicinal value so this is a truly excellent group of common plants to know.
Not all flowers with 5 petals are roses, but a lot of them are. So keep this one high on your list of plants to know.
2. Pea Family
Here’s another common type of plant you probably already know without realizing it… it’s the peas & beans family!
The pea family is extremely easy to identify because of the long and sometimes edible seed pods that develop during their fruit stage.
In fact, anytime you see a plant with long seed pods that look like beans, this is very likely in the pea family.
The other important characteristic to observe on plants in the pea family is their unique flower structure.
Unlike roses which follow a classic fanning flower shape, peas have what is known as an irregular flower.
And it looks like this:
While the exact colors and sizes vary, all plants in the pea family have flowers that look exactly like this.
The unique combination of irregular flowers with easy-to-see bean pods make plants in the pea family some of the easiest in the world to identify.
This is a huge benefit to plant learners because “leguminous” plants (peas & beans family) are extremely widespread with thousands of individual species all sharing these same basic characteristics.
- Some grow on vines like pole beans & garden peas.
- Some grow on shrubs and even full grown trees like as seen in the photo above.
- And some legumes (like the clover pictured below) grow as herbaceous plants very low to the ground.
Start looking for these simple characteristics of pea plants and pretty soon you’ll be spotting these plants everywhere!
Many peas & beans are highly edible & delicious, but it’s important to realize this family is not quite as safe as the rose family.
There are some peas & beans species that have toxic qualities, so always make sure you identify the exact plant species and check with a local expert before eating anything.
3. Mint Family
When you first begin studying the different types of plants, a great way to accelerate your learning is to start with plants you already have some basic relationship with through daily life in the kitchen.
This is a great reason why the mint family should be very high on your list of plants to learn.
I’m sure you already know about mint in the form of fresh minty smelling peppermint plants.
What you might not realize is that many other common culinary herbs found in your kitchen are also members of this same plant family.
Mint family plants all share the same key botanical characteristics which makes them extremely easy to learn as one big group of relatives.
Sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme, savory, basil, even lavender and any sub varieties of these plants are all part of this same plant family!
So how do you identify plants in the mint family?
Plants in the mint family all have very distinctive flowers that are usually white, pink or purple in color.
Unlike the typical fanning flower shape that most people imagine when they think of flowers, mint flowers have their own distinct shape & structure that is completely unique to this one family of plants.
Take a look and notice how unique these flowers are:
The biggest challenge with the mint family is their flowers do tend to be quite small so you have to look very carefully to see the pattern.
Anytime you see a plant with unusual pink or purple flowers that look like this, you’re very likely looking at a member of the mint family.
To confirm whether you are indeed seeing a mint plant – look carefully at the plant stem and study it’s shape.
You’ll notice that mint family plants have a uniquely square-shaped stem with leaves that branch off in an opposite pattern.
Another fascinating ID trait for the mint family is that so many of them are incredibly fragrant, with abundant oils in the leaves that can be smelled quite easily.
Just remember that wild mints tend towards being less fragrant than the cultivated varieties found in a garden.
Most of these plants have useful edible or medicinal qualities with a high safety profile making this a superb family of plants to learn early on your plant journey.
4. Parsley Family
The parsley family is another huge family of plants that most people are already somewhat familiar with.
It’s also sometimes called the carrot family because carrots and parsley are actually very closely related.
These plants are quite easy to identify by the frilly leaf material pictured below, and the high rising compound flower stalk pictured above.
Notice the flower head is actually hundreds of tiny flowers growing together, usually white or yellow.
The parsley family is extremely important to identify with confidence because some plants in this family are highly edible and delicious, while others are extremely poisonous and dangerous.
In fact – There are some plants in the parsley family that can do serious harm just by touching them.
The parsley family is also extremely common in the wild.
As you get out to explore local plants, you will definitely encounter wild members of the parsley/carrot family, and it’s important to approach them with caution, so I created a whole video tutorial just on this one family.
This is a very easy group of plants to identify… It’s definitely one of the first types of plants you should learn, but do not touch or use these plants until you get confident about ID with a local expert.
5. Heath Family
Next on our list of plants is the heath family.
Heath plants are great to know because they’re very common and many of them have delicious edible berries.
Blueberry, huckleberry, cranberries & wintergreen are all excellent common edible members of the heath family.
If you study these plants carefully, you’ll notice they all have common structures that are quite easy to identify once you know what to look for.
So here are the some characteristics to help you identify plants in the heath family:
Most heath plants are short, woody shrubs growing anywhere from the ground level up to head height.
The first thing to study are the leaves.
Notice how the leaves on this blueberry shrub are branching off in an alternating pattern as you move up either side of the stem.
One leaf on the left. Then one on the right, before switching back again.
Notice too the actual shape & quality of the leaves themselves.
The leaves are oval shaped and come to a point at the tip. They have a somewhat glossy or waxy appearance, especially on fresh growth.
Even more distinct than the leaves are the bell shaped flowers. Heath flowers have 5 unified petals that form a little upside down cavern.
And finally – As the season progresses, many members of the heath family have small berries that form in little clusters after the flowers die off.
If you’ve ever gone berry picking for summer blueberries or huckleberries, then you’re already quite familiar with these plants.
Heaths are a great type of plants to know because they’re so easy to identify by the combination of patterns at leafing, flowering, and fruiting stages.
Not to mention they’re delicious!
6. Nightshade Family
You’ll notice a lot of plants on this list were chosen because they’re common, easy to identify, and have specific uses or dangers that everyone should know in order to stay safe.
The nightshade family is a perfect example of all these diverse qualities coming together in one group of plants.
Nightshades like tomatoes, pepper plants & eggplants are among the most commonly eaten vegetables in the world.
However this group also includes extremely poisonous plants like deadly nightshade, belladonna & datura.
These plants are frequently grown as ornamentals because they have such beautiful flowers… and it’s for this reason that nightshades are incredibly important for everyone to know.
Here’s how to identify members of the nightshade family:
Most nightshades are vines. They climb over things and stretch out to catch the sunlight.
Some stay quite small, only climbing within 3 or 4 feet of the ground, but they can also grow quite tall.
Here’s one that that climbed all the way to the top of a trellis before it started blooming:
Nightshade plants will most often catch your eye either when they’re flowering or during the fruiting stage.
The flowers can be quite beautiful, coming in many different colors including white, orange, yellow, pink, and purple.
In the example above, notice the long, tubular and bell-shaped orange flowers. These large “trumpet horn” flowers are quite common to see on many of the most vigorous vines in this family.
On smaller nightshade plants like tomatoes, the flowers lose that long tubular shape, but the same basic structure is the same.
Here we can see an example of nightshade flowers without the tubular bell shape:
It’s much easier now to see that nightshade flowers have 5 unified petals in a star shape. Having unified petals means they’re all connected before meeting the main plant.
Nightshade flowers can have some cosmetic diversity from species to species, but they are all still part of the same family.
Notice how these purple nightshade flowers have extra connective material between the petals.
Study these flowers carefully and focus on the darker purple. Notice it still has that same 5 petaled star shape.
In this example we can also clearly see the branching pattern. The leaves branch off the vine in an alternating pattern.
Then after the flowering stage, nightshades also have a very obvious & long-lived fruiting stage.
The fruit comes in many shapes & sizes, it can look like peppers, tomatoes or even berries… which is one of the reasons why it’s so important to not eat random berries in the woods.
With a bit of practice looking for vines with 5 unified petals that display fruits, you’ll realize nightshades are amongst the easiest types of plants to identify in the world.
Nightshades are also extremely common, either as native species, or imported for food/ornamental/medicinal purposes.
Always remember this is a high risk plant because many of them are poisonous.
7. Aster Tribe
Asters are a huge group of plants that basically everyone in the world already knows on some level without realizing the finer points of confident identification.
Look at this daisy flower and ask yourself, how many petals are there?
While it looks like this flower has dozens of petals… in actual fact, you’re only looking at three!
That’s because Aster flowers are compound flowers, made up from dozens of smaller flowers growing together on the same stalk.
Notice how each “petal” of the flower head is further subdivided into 3 smaller sub-sections… those are the actual petals.
Therefore, in the photo above you’re actually looking at (approximately) 38 daisy flowers all growing on the same head. Isn’t that crazy?
This sprawling unified “ray” flower pattern is only found on plants in the aster tribe.
And as you begin looking for this out in nature, you’ll quickly discover this is one of the most common types of plant patterns in the world.
Here it is on yarrow, which is a common field plant:
Yarrow flowers are quite small, but if you look carefully you’ll observe that each “petal” (not true petals) of these yarrow flowers are further subdivided into 3 unified petals.
Another example is dandelion, shown here:
It’s amazing when you start looking for this pattern of unified compound flowers, just how many common plants you’ve probably seen growing in your yard all have this same pattern.
Learn to recognize this one type of plant and it will dramatically improve how quickly you discover the most common plants of your local area.
8. Willow Family
Willows are very common shrubs & trees that grow close to water.
These are plants that need significant moisture at many times of year, even thriving in wet conditions that would kill many other less water adapted species.
Because of this, willows fit into a very unique ecological niche that is more or less predictable in nature.
Their specialized habitat combined with colorful, eye catching & drooping foliage makes willows extremely simple to identify.
Notice how the bright foliage of this willow tree seems to hang down from the branches. The leaves are long, narrow and quite numerous.
Their unique appearance causes willows to really stand out against the backdrop of other plants and surrounding landscapes.
In fact, this has always been one of my personal favorite ways to identify willows because they’re so easy to spot from a distance.
You just have to step back and spend some time looking at how willows relate to the surrounding plants & trees growing in a landscape.
Can you find the willows in this dry landscape?
In this example, notice how the vegetation on the hills is extremely dry and pale, but down in the wet areas there are thick shrubby spots with several different types of willows growing.
If you watched my free video on how to read the secrets of a forest, this was one of the landscapes I used to show how you can predict the qualities of a forest just by looking at simple environmental patterns like willows.
Another thing that makes willows such a great type of plant to know, is that they’re so darn common.
If you’ve been out hiking in nature anytime in the last 20 years and you still don’t know what a willow is, then it might be time for an awareness upgrade!
This plant is also used a lot in landscaping. People plant willows in their yards for the variety of colorful leaves that are quite beautiful at all times of the growing season.
Here’s a little closeup of some interesting little willow leaves:
There are hundreds of different types of willows, but they all have these long skinny leaves with plenty of blotching & interesting color changes.
The bark is also well known to contain aspirin, but remember you should always check with a local doctor and herbalist about your personal conditions before using any plant medicines.
Next time you’re out for a walk near fresh water, look for some willows and you’ll learn this one pretty quick!
9. Plantain Family
Plantain is a very common type of plant that thrives in compacted soil conditions caused by human activity and disturbances.
The irony being that so many lawn owners strongly dislike this plant and try to get rid of it (usually unsuccessfully), without realizing that they themselves are most likely causing it to grow in the first place!
Luckily for us plant lovers, this means you never have to go far to find plantains because they grow anywhere you find people.
Here’s what it looks like:
One of the biggest clues that you’re dealing with a plantain is when you observe all the leaves & flower stems emerging directly from the base.
This basal leafing pattern combined with distinct and long-lasting flower/seed stalks makes plantain pretty unmistakable to identify.
Plus – if you can get past the common stigma against this plant, you’ll discover it’s incredibly useful to have around!
Broad-leaved plantain has both edible and medicinal qualities at various stages of growth.
The flowers are quite small, emerging like little white wisps off the long and skinny plant stalk:
These emerging flower stalks are really one of the best ways to identify plantains. They last through most of the entire growing season, and eventually the flowers are replaced by a line of small seeds.
Some plantains have very broad leaves, while others have very skinny leaves, but overall this group is incredibly simple to identify by the combination of basal leaves and a very distinct flower stalk.
This is definitely one of the most common plants that everyone should know.
10. Dicot Plants
One of the most useful things for beginners to learn when typing out plants is being able to know whether you’re looking at a dicot or a monocot.
Dicots and monocots are two of the most basic types of plant classification in botany based on the plainly observable characteristics of any plant.
First – Take a look at this lettuce plant and examine the little veins running through the leaf structure.
Notice there’s one main line going up the center of the leaf, with dozens of smaller offshoots at perpendicular angles like a web.
Whenever you see leaf veins shooting off like a web, it’s a very good sign you’re looking at a dicot.
Another important thing to observe is the flower.
Dicot flowers grow with parts in multiples of 4 or 5, like this mustard flower:
This means when you see a flower with 4, 5, 8, 10, 12 or even more petals at multiples of 4 or 5, there’s a very good chance you’re looking at a dicot.
But never 3, 6 or 9 petals (we’ll talk about those in a moment).
These simple little botany tricks like counting petals will give you a much faster and more intuitive way to learn the different plant types.
In fact, every plant we’ve looked at so far in this article are all part of this larger dicot group of plants.
So now let’s take a look at some common monocots for the other side of dicot vs monocot identification!
11. Monocot Plants
Monocots have two distinct characteristics in the leaves and flowers to help us learn these plants more quickly.
The first thing to observe is the pattern of veins in the leaves of monocots vs dicots.
Monocots tend to have leaf veins that run parallel along the leaves without intersecting like a web.
A perfect example of this is grass:
Notice how the veins of this grass plant are running parallel up and down the stalk. This is very characteristic of monocot plants, and it’s ridiculously easy to observe!
We saw before how dicots have perpendicular veins that fan out and intersect, so this is an extremely simple difference, but it really helps us narrow down our identification of every plant in the world.
Whenever you discover a new plant, one of the first questions you should always ask yourself is: Does this plant have parallel veins or perpendicular veins?
The other thing to compare is the flowers. Monocot flowers have petals in multiples of 3:
If you count the petals on these crocus flowers, you’ll notice there are 6 petals on each flower, which is perfectly divisible by 3.
For bonus points, you can also spot the simple parallel leaf vein pattern which places crocuses squarely in the monocot category.
When it comes to monocots vs dicots, there are several more subtle clues to look for besides the leaves & flowers, but this is enough to get you started and accurately classify the majority of plants you encounter.
For the next few types of plants we’ll focus on some of the most common monocots that should be high on everyone’s plant list.
12. Lily Family
Lilies are some of the most common and easy-to-recognize types of monocot plants in the world.
The best way to identify lilies is to wait for the flowering season and count up the petals. Look for classic symmetrical flowers with petals numbering in multiples of 3 combined with parallel leaf veins.
Trilliums are one of the best examples because the flower is so simple and even the name “trillium” references the number three.
Trilliums have 3 large petals in a beautiful symmetrical shape. They bloom quite early in spring before dying back and going dormant through the dry summer.
If you’re lucky enough to have trilliums in your area, this is a great plant to study early in the growing season. Their blooms are sure to catch your eye as you wander through the forest.
Other common types of lilies include edible plants like onions and garlic:
In this case, we’re looking at a compound flower with dozens of smaller six petaled flowers all growing together on the same head.
With careful observation we can spot the same basic lily pattern of simple, symmetrical flowers with petals at multiples of 3 and parallel leaf veins.
Other common lilies sharing these same characteristics include tulips and asparagus.
If you live in a place that has cattails, this is definitely one type of plant that should be high on your list.
In fact, Cattails are so easy to discern that you might already feel you know this plant quite well.
For many people, cattails are the quintessential wetland plant with incredibly distinctive hotdog flower heads that makes this plant so easy to recognize.
However just because a plant is easy, doesn’t mean you can’t still look closer and continue engaging your observation skills more deeply.
This is a great opportunity to practice observing plant characteristics with an already known species, which is a spectacular way to build your confidence about plants in general.
So next time you see cattails, don’t just walk by!
Take some time to get closer and really study the leaves, study this plant more carefully than you’ve ever done before. You’ll be amazed at how much more you see by taking this approach.
Cattails also have a big meaty tuber at the root, which is edible when harvested from clean waters.
Just be aware that Cattails will accumulate heavy metals if they’re growing in polluted water, so it’s always best to get some mentoring from a local edible plants expert before consuming anything harvested from the wild.
Orchids are definitely one type of plant that everyone should know because they grow all around the world and they’re super easy to identify.
There are more than 25,000 different types of orchids in the world, which might seem like an overwhelming number if it weren’t for their irregular and instantly recognizable flowers:
Whenever you see a plant with parallel leaf veins and a bizarre eye-catching flower that looks a bit like this (with some variation), it’s a very good chance you’re looking at an orchid.
Orchids can be somewhat rare in cold climates, becoming more common and diverse as you move south.
That said, when you do get the opportunity to see an orchid growing natural in the wild, it can be a truly awe-inspiring experience, not to be missed!
These plants can include quite sensitive species so please approach with caution & respect for local biodiversity (this is another great reason why everyone should learn to recognize wild orchids).
They may be somewhat rare, but just remember to look for irregular 3-petaled flowers with parallel leaf veins, and you’ll eventually get to see one for yourself.
A Few Safety Comments On Poisonous Plants:
Every bioregion has at least a few different types of poisonous plants that can cause harm if you don’t know what to look for.
For this reason, I always highly recommend plant beginners take the time to familiarize themselves with any possible hazards that might be growing in your area.
This is not to make you paranoid about plants, but rather as a practical consideration to keep you safe in the woods.
The simplest method is to search online for local lists of poisonous plants that grow in your area.
Wikipedia has a fairly thorough list of poisonous plants, and it’s well worth knowing if anything on that list grows locally.
Luckily, there’s usually just a handful of plants you need to watch out for in any particular bioregion, and we’ve already covered some of the most common ones in earlier sections, like this one:
Here are some tips for staying safe while learning about plants:
- For the most part you can keep yourself safe simply by not ingesting anything you haven’t 100% confidently identified as being safe and edible. (Hopefully this should already be common sense!)
- Be aware – there are some plants that can cause contact skin irritation, or make you sick if you burn them or forget to wash your hands.
- When in doubt – don’t even touch a new plant until you investigate any possible dangers or risks.
- Always try to get outside with a local plant expert who can show you what’s safe & what to watch out for in your area.
Follow these common sense suggestions and learning the different types of plants will be a safe and rewarding journey!
Now Let’s Start Learning Those Plants!
So there you have 14 of the absolute best types of plants that everyone should learn early on their plant journey.
Learning these plants first will help you break things down into easily manageable chunks and build your confidence to identify common patterns in the field.
With good practice & observation you’ll develop some really great plant identification skills, which is truly essential for nature lovers all around the world.
Have fun checking out those plants and let me know what you discover!
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