Monday, August 8, 2011

An Amateur's Guide to Identifying Plants

I'm not a horticulturalist or a landscaper or a designer.  Let me be clear - I am strictly an Amateur gardener.  But I thought it might be helpful, from one amateur to another, to talk about identifying unknown plants. 

It happens to all of us at one time or another.  You purchase a house that already has a garden.  A friend or neighbour gifts you with a plant that you (or they) can't remember the name of.  You take a plant home from a nursery but lose the tag.  Or purchase something at a plant sale without a name.  I think I've had each of these scenarios happen to me at one time or another.

Some people might not be terribly concerned about the name of their plant but many of us like to know what our plant is called so that we can learn how to better care for it.  Does it require full sun or shade?  Should it be given lots of moisture?

This blue grass is a plant sale purchase but the name is unknown
As an amateur gardener how do you discover the identity of your new plant?
1.  Look at other people's gardens.  Take a walk down a street in town and look at your neighbour's gardens. You might see your new plant growing at someone else's home.  If the owner of the home is around, ask them what it is.  If you don't see them, knock on the door.  Yes, I said knock on the door.  Gardeners love their gardens and more often than not they will be complimented that you noticed their yard. Unless you've caught them in the middle of some activity, you will likely be told the name of the plant and possibly even given a tour.  What if no one is home?  or the family's teenage son answers and gives you the incorrect name of the plant?  (yes, this happened to me)
2.  Take a picture.  You brought your camera with you, right?  A picture is worth a thousand words and is very easy to post on the internet.  Pictures can be posted on your blog or on garden forums.  Gardeners worldwide will then be able to see the picture and help you identify your plant.  Try forums such as UBC Botanical Garden, Dave's Garden or GardenWeb.  A word of advice about posting pictures.  Make sure your photo is clear and not blurry.  If people can't see it they can't identify it.  If it's a flowering plant, try and take a close up of the flower.  Also take a separate photo of the leaves.  If it's a large tree or shrub, take a photo that shows the shape of the plant.  If possible, include a description with your photo of any outstanding characteristics such as leaf shape, colour and climate.
3.  Google it.  Think about what makes this plant different and google various search terms.  For example, if you type 'silver fuzzy leaves' into Google or Google Images you will immediately pull up hundreds of images and descriptions of plants that fit, such as Lamb's Ears and Snow in Summer.  You can then browse and possibly find a match to your plant.
4.  Check your Garden Encyclopedia.  It's not a quick and easy solution but by flipping through the pages of a garden book you may come across your unknown plant.  If you know the plant you are trying to identify is a perennial then look at a book of perennials.  If it was something you saw while on vacation in Hawaii then you'll need a book of Hawaian plants.  If you don't have a Garden Encyclopedia, buy one.  Reference books for the garden are indispensible.  A couple of my favourite go-to books when trying to identify a plant include:
                        2850 House And Garden Plants        Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials: 10th Anniversary Revised and Expanded Edition

5.  Walk through a Nursery.  Go to your local nursery and browse the aisles.  You may stumble upon the plant or you can talk to nursery staff who may be able to identify it for you.
6.  Browse Seed Catalogues.  Seed companies put out glossy catalogues each year featuring photos of the plants their seeds will grow into.  These catalogues also contain information on each plant such as sun requirements, height, and bloom time which will also be helpful in identifying the plant you are looking for.
7.  Talk to an Extension Agent or Master Gardener.  In many countries Extension Agents are located at various Universities to help citizens with agricultural issues.  If you're lucky enough to live in an area where there is an agent, give them a call and they may be able to help identify your plant.  For those of us in Canada no extension agents are available but we do have Master Gardeners.  Separate Master Gardener programs run in each province so do an internet search to find the program closest to you and send off your questions.  Master Gardeners often attend at nurseries and gardening events as well so be prepared to ask about your plant when you see them.
8.  Read Garden Blogs.  There are literally thousands of garden blogs on the internet, with writers in countries around the globe.  If your plant came from a specific area you can search for a garden blog in that area and possibly find your plant by reading through their posts or asking the writer personally.  To find a garden blog in a specific area visit Blotanical.  Blotanical is a garden blog directory and meeting place for garden bloggers.  One of it's features is that you can search garden blogs using a google map.  By clicking on the continent of your choice a map will come up with blogs indicated by a flower icon. 
9.  Take a Course.  Many cities and towns offer courses through community centers and botanical gardens.  Take a look at their course lists and you may be surprised to find courses on plant identification, among other things.


  1. Great recommendations! Being a Master Gardener I must say we don't always know the answer, but, as a MG we have the tools to find out. Many of those tools are some of your other suggestions.
    I love that you knock on people's doors to ask about their garden. That gets a green thumb up!

  2. Great suggestions, Marguerite. I especially like the one about photographing *both* the flowers and the leaves. I seem to be hard-wired to notice flowers, but I almost never pay attention to the leaves -- and this has often led me to mis-identify plants. -Jean

  3. These are great tips all in one place. When I am perplexed over a plant, I end up doing many of these things. Thanks for putting all these ideas in one place.

  4. Dear Marguerite, This is an excellent posting. You may be an "Amateur" as you said, but one would never know it from your "expert" advice. As a master gardener, I echo Janet's comments -- don't know all the answers, but know where to find them .... and so do you! P. x

  5. This is a very comprehensive approach to learning horticulture. The internet is such a wonderful resource for plant info and i.d., but you point out many others too. It is so rewarding to learn what an unknown mystery plant might be!

  6. Janet - I'm glad to hear it's a green thumb up instead of raised eyebrows! Some people might find chasing down neighbours to figure out a plant a bit extreme but when you have to know, you have to know.

    Jean - I think most of us have that problem. The flower looks like the most unique feature so we focus on it.

    Sage Butterfly - I'm a big fan of lists so this was just another case of me making a list! I've been doing some plant ID'ing lately so this was on my mind.

    Pam - One of the things I remember vividly from school was learning that you didn't need to know all the answers, you just had to know where to look for them. That lesson really stuck with me it seems!

    Laurrie - I often wonder, what the heck did people do before the internet? It is such an amazing resource.

  7. Garden Walk Garden Talk posted a picture of a plant, along with its name, that was a mystery plant in my garden! I had lost the plant tag. Great tips! What's funny is when people are talking about the same plant but don't realize it because they are using different local names instead of the Latin.

  8. You forgot my favourite - "ask Marguerite!"

  9. Great ideas. It is frustrating to me when I don't know a plant's identity. I try to keep tags, but sometimes they just say "perennial". Grrr!

  10. TS - I've had this happen too! Carol @ Flower Hill Farm talked about red berried elder in the spring and I was thrilled to recognize it as a plant on my property. Blogs are just awesome.

    Thanks Jennifer!

    Jane - You make me laugh. I wish I was as smart as you think I am!

    Holley - poor plant tags aggravate me to no end! Every once in a while I come across ones without adequate information and it's like, why did they even bother?

  11. What a great set of tips! I have visions of a new blog meme, can you identify this, for people who have unknown delights (or thugs)...

  12. Great list of common resources Marguerite. As a MG, I know where to look for answers, but Google Images always proves useful for a quick answer. Like you said, make sure to include foliage and the whole plant if possible. I send images to Cornell University often to horticulturalists, plant pathologists and entomologists for ID, and a full description is a must I learned.

  13. Your ideas are so organized and well thought out, and they apply to increasing one's knwledge of gardening generally.

  14. Google has a new feature. You can now search BY image. Put in your nice clear picture, and Google will tell you what it is.

    Google. Images. Then click on the camera logo ...

  15. Janet - that is an interesting idea. Send in a photo and everybody can play sleuth to figure out what the plant is.

    Donna - I had no idea the extent of the role that universities play in horticulture. I like the idea of universities and gardeners collaborating to learn more about plants.

    Thank you Carolyn. People often look for the quick answer and I've found when identifying plants that never seems to be the case. Besides it's much more fun to learn a little along the way.

    Diana - that is INCREDIBLE. I had no idea this feature existed. Again, the internet never fails to amaze and thrill me.