Ontario Wildflowers website

Learning to Identify Wildflowers


Getting to Know Plants Involves Details
by Betzy Bancroft

Identifying a plant or flower is not difficult. The trouble is, flowers are often short-lived and we want to know the plant well enough that we can always recognize it. When we first look at a plant, most of us notice the size and shape of the leaves. But to distinguish one plant, shrub or tree from another we must look closely at a variety of details and use our senses of smell and touch as well.

Of course it's safest to look at the plant before we touch it. If it has leaves, look at their arrangement. Opposite leaves are directly across from one another, alternate leaves are more or less evenly spaced along the stem. There are other arrangements of leaves like whorled or basal rosette. The next basic feature of leaves is simple or compound. If the leaf is entire, it's simple; if it is comprised of more than one leaflet it's compound. To narrow down identification in a field guide, opposite/alternate and simple/compound are the few botanical terms you need to understand.

Now look even closer. Notice the edge of the leaf. Is it smooth, evenly or jaggedly toothed, deeply indented, sharply serrated or scalloped? Take careful note of the pattern on the edge of the leaf. Is the leaf symmetrical or is one side different somehow? For example, elms and basswoods both have asymmetrical leaves.

Texture is one of the most important characteristics of leaves. Look at the vein structure and how that affects the texture of the leaf. Are the veins parallel or branching? Are they a different color? Leaves also vary from very smooth and delicate to tough and leathery, and this can be visual or physical. Take note of the quality and quantity of fuzziness, spinyness or hairiness of the leaf including where it's fuzzy, like underneath. How is the texture different from the top of the leaf to the underside, and on different parts of the plant? For example, burdock's woolly texture and purple stem clearly differentiate it from other large-leafed herbs like rhubarb, which is very smooth and has red stems.

If you're sure it's not a toxic or irritating plant like poison ivy, feel the texture of the leaves. An obvious example here is cleavers, which has a tackiness not shared by other bedstraws. Get a sense of the surface and overall structure. Rubbing the leaves is also the best way to smell them. You may notice the fragrance right away, or you may have to smell your fingers to get it. Smell is closely related to taste, so this gives you lots of clues about the possible chemistry, energy and palatability of the plant as well as its identity.

With trees, shrubs and vines, it is important to also investigate the stems or branches. Here texture is your main feature, but look at the patterns, colors, scars and buds. Are the patterns parallel to the growth, or perpendicular to it? What differences do you see between the texture and color from older to younger growth? Feel the texture gently and notice if anything falls or rubs off. Look at the colors of the stems and where the colors change in relation to the structure of the plant. Scratching a little bit of the bark off a twig and smelling the twig or rubbing the stem are also really helpful for many of the same reasons as smelling leaves. You may find more fragrance in the bark or stem than leaves, and many aromatic herbaceous plants retain their scent when they dry up in autumn.

When you study the physical characteristics of a particular plant, and get to know its growth and reproductive habits, not only will you be able to recognize it easily in any season, but you will have an understanding of its personality. Knowing the personality of a plant tells you not only how to use it, but what its relationship to the ecosystem is and how it can be sustainably harvested or propagated.

From True Tracks, Fall 1999, published by the Tracker School.
There's more articles from True Tracks on the Tracker Trail website.