When I first began studying nature, one of best skills I learned was how to ask really good questions about plants.
Whether you want to learn about plants for yourself, or if you’re a teacher looking for ways to engage your students outside, good questions are the foundation of effective learning!
The most common question people ask about plants is ‘what kind of plant is this?’… But there’s actually so much more that goes into developing deeper knowledge & appreciation of plants.
So today I’d like to share a special series of six questions anyone can ask about plants that are practically guaranteed to generate amazing insights as you explore your local habitat.
Let’s get started!
1. What Is The Structure of This Plant?
I mentioned above that the most common question people ask about plants is ‘what kind of plant is this?’
While this isn’t necessarily a bad question, the problem is it doesn’t improve your plant observation skills unless you already know the answer!
So even more important than asking – ‘what kind of plant’, the question you need to ask first is – What is the structure of this plant?
The structure of a plant means the actual observable features that anyone can plainly see by engaging their eyes and looking:
- What do the leaves look like?
- What does the stalk look like?
- Do the leaves emerge off the stalk in pairs of two?
- Or do they alternate up the branch one by one?
- What does the flower look like?
- How many petals does it have?
- Does this plant have a single stalk?
- Or does it send up multiple shoots and branch out in complex ways?
These are all different ways of asking about a plant’s observable structure from many different angles.
Our goal is simply to make good observations that clarify our knowledge of the core identification features.
Each new observation you make about the plant gives you yet another clue as to the identity of that plant, even if it’s the very first time you’ve ever seen it.
If you focus on structure, then it doesn’t matter whether you know the name or not!
This is how you develop truly sharp plant identification skills. It comes from observing plant structures and patterns.
This is easy to practice by going outside with a notepad and simply make as many observations about plant structures as you can in an hour.
2. Where Does This Plant Grow?
Another important thing to observe about plants is the actual location where plants are growing:
- Is this plant growing in an open field?
- Is it growing in a deep forest?
- Is it growing on the edge of a forest?
- How dry is this place? Are you next to water?
- On the side of a hill? Or in flat lands?
These are incredibly simple and useful observations that commonly get missed when people become focus locked on staring at plants up close.
Paying attention to where plants grow is a great way to help you narrow down your search for a plants identity.
Some plants only grow next to water. Other plants only grow deep within the forest. It’s important to study these patterns if you want to truly know your local ecosystem!
This also makes it easier to find the same plant again when you visit other locations by checking for the same ecological niches.
And the best thing is again, this question helps you to observe plants whether or not you even know the name of that plant.
“That blue flower that always grows in open fields” is a much more specific description that just knowing a plant has a blue flower.
People often don’t think about how plants relate to their environment, but this is actually one of the most important things we can use to understand our landscape more deeply.
3. What Stage of Plant Growth Are You Observing?
Another great thing you can study is the actual stage of growth you’re observing within the local plants.
Plants are not just static elements of a landscape that stay the same all year long. They go through phases and stages that we can observe and learn from.
- Stage 1: Tender new growth
- Stage 2: Rapid expansion of leaves & upward momentum
- Stage 3: Budding & Flowering
- Stage 4: Flowers die off
- Stage 5: Development of seeds, nuts, berries
- Stage 6: Plant die back or hardening for winter
- Stage 7: Dormancy
In temperate climates, these stages are intimately connected to the season, but every plant also moves through these stages in their own unique way.
Some plants flower in spring and then rapidly die off before things get hot.
Other plants need the long summer heat to really get going and give time for pollinators to work their magic.
Some plants will even wait until autumn to do their main burst of flowering.
So whenever you step outside to observe plants, ask yourself – What stage of growth am I observing in these plants?
Pay attention to how your local species move through the different stages of growth, and this will add yet another dimension of perspective.
You can even study how different locations cause plants to evolve through these stages at different rates depending on sunlight, moisture & soil quality.
These are all questions that contribute to better identification skills, and understanding your local ecology from a big picture perspective.
4. How Many Plants Are Growing Here?
Plants rarely grow as just a single individual.
Instead they grow in clusters and groups that are uniquely representative of a local ecology like community of living elements.
So whenever you find a new plant, don’t just get focus-locked on that one individual plant!
Ask yourself some good questions to expand your analysis of the entire plant community:
- How many plants are growing here?
- How many of the same species can you find in this area?
- How many different species are co-existing together?
- Are they all growing in a big uniform clump?
- Are they spread out and mixed together over a larger area?
This question has many different levels that help us understand our local plants in much greater depth.
And again I’ll point out… these are not difficult things to observe!
These are all very simple things that anyone can observe regardless of your skill level.
Even young children can easily see when an entire field is filled with a single plant vs when it’s mixed with a variety of different species.
These are great things to notice because it builds your confidence with studying plant patterns, without needing to be an expert on plant identification.
It’s a great way to make plant science much more fun and accessible for all ages and skill levels.
With ongoing practice, plant communities will help you identify plants much more quickly by association with others that grow together.
It’s just a much smarter way to learn about nature!
5. What Else Interacts With This Plant Community?
Everything in nature exists in relationship with everything else. Nothing exists in isolation.
This means when you find a plant, it’s a great opportunity to expand your knowledge by asking questions about everything else that’s also connected in the ecosystem.
You can look at things like:
- What kind of trees are growing nearby?
- What animals are using this plant for food or habitat?
- Are there insects pollinating or feeding on this plant?
- How does this plant affect the soil life when it dies and decays?
- What else does this plant interact with?
This question is a little more advanced than the previous ones. It requires sharp observation skills and patience to look around for clues.
However it’s also broad enough that asking this question can reveal fascinating discoveries on your very first plant adventure.
You really don’t have to be a plant expert to observe how insects & birds are using plants for their survival strategies.
And even if you already feel like a plant expert, this is a great way to expand your knowledge far beyond what you currently know.
This is a great way to engage students who might not be directly interested in plants, but do have interest in insects or mammals.
By expanding our study of plants to include relationships with the wider ecosystem, it enables us to see the big picture and appreciate how life supports each other.
6. How Are These Plants Helping Me?
One of the greatest benefits of learning about plants is discovering the almost endless ways they help us live happier and healthier lives.
If you’ve never asked this question before, you might not be aware of how plants are actually helping you.
The best way to grow your knowledge in this area is to pick one plant and focus on studying it’s benefits from all different angles by asking questions like:
- What are the medicinal or edible qualities of this plant?
- How did traditional indigenous people use this plant in their daily lives?
- What positive feelings or emotions do you experience when you spend time with this plant?
- What supportive relationships does this plant have with insects or other beneficial organisms like birds & mammals?
- How does this plant affect the soil quality & soil chemistry when it dies and decomposes?
Of all the questions we’ve explored so far, these will require the most research & motivation to follow-through.
However, they also can be some of the most fun because you get actually learn how plants can benefit you and integrate into your life!
If you’re serious about going deep with plants, eventually you will hit a point where you just have to hit the books.
Whenever possible, always start with questions that can be answered through direct observation.
If you notice a particular plant grows extremely well on steep hillsides, these plants often have roots structures that help to control erosion.
A lot of wetland plants have tremendous benefits for improving water quality by cleaning nutrient overloads & pulling out toxins.
A good mindset to help you directly observe these benefits of plants is to realize that every plant has some role to play in it’s environment. It’s just a matter of whether our awareness is tuned enough to see what’s happening.
Practice Asking Plant Questions!
I hope you’re starting to see there’s a whole art and science behind asking good questions about plants.
The right question asked at the right moment can inspire an endless journey of discovery that nurtures our own love of nature, and helps to mentor the next generation of passionate naturalists.
The most important thing is to practice getting outside and asking questions from every possible angle while focusing your attention on whatever is growing in your area.
Pay attention to your own feelings of curiosity. This is your guide to knowing when the questions are really working.
What questions actually make YOU feel curious to look closer at plants?
Have fun out there!