Has this or something similar ever happened to you? You open your door to greet the day, and find that someone has left a lovely plant on your doorstep. There is a small note attached reading “I’m moving and wanted this to go to a good home, your garden shows that you care about plants, so enjoy!” How nice! Now, what is it? Plant identification can be as fun as doing puzzles, or as frustrating as the homework from your college calculus class. Please let me explain.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 6, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published article may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
Not every gardener has a Master's degree in Botany or Horticulture. Many of us learn by doing, reading, trail and error. But when it comes to trying to identify a plant, even the most knowledgeable can feel like a total novice. If you don't live near good nurseries or garden centers, if the closest extension office is several hundred miles away, (or in my case - thousands), then live and in-person, touchy, feely identification isn't possible, and your only recourse is to turn to books and the Internet. It's not as if there were only a few names to choose from, nor are there only a few sources to find those names. If you Google "plant identification, it comes up with 352,000 entries! Who has time to wander through all that?! So we each have our favorites, and if you are reading this, chances are that one of your favorites, if not number one on your list is Dave's Garden. If the Plant Files can't help you, then the wonderful, friendly people in the forums will do their darndest to help you come up with an answer. But why is it so hard in the first place?
Well, first of all you have to decide what type of plant it is...grass, forb, tree, shrub, vine? And just what the heck is a forb? Aha! A vascular plant that isn't woody...gotcha. Now, are there flowers or no flowers? Uh, I've had it a week...no flowers now, but maybe... Okay, well, are there 2 seed leaves or just one? Uh...it's about a foot tall; I think its beyond the seed leaf stage. Right. Well, then let us turn to other identifiers...is it a succulent, an epiphyte, a bulb?
In botany you can get a little light-headed wandering through the Latin names in the family trees. Start at the top with Families, then follow down the tree as follows: subfamilies, tribes, subtribes, genus, species, variety, form, and cultivar. Ah, come on, I just want to know what it is, so I can find out where to put it and how to care for it!
This is where pictures can prove invaluable. Many times, what can be very hard to describe in botanical terms, can be seen quite clearly in a picture. Growth pattern, leaf placement and markings, leaf shape and distance from the stem, can all be seen without knowing a petiole from a peduncle. Many plants can be identified in this way with only a few hours of invested time. But what do you do if you can't find a picture that looks like your plant? Well, similarities in form or structure can lead you in the direction of family, tribe or species...something as simple as the color of the sap can send you looking through Euphorbias for example. Once you think you have the family identified, it then just becomes a matter of sifting through all the pictures you can find of that family, and sometimes that alone will lead you to the right identification. Ah yes, sometimes. I personally have well over 25 gardening books; many dedicated to one type of plant or region. I have 32 sites listed in my "plants" folder on my computer, including a vocational education site on horticulture basics that I am working with. And still, there are plants I am asked about, or receive from friends that I cannot identify.
Now some of you reading this will understand my frustration in a flash... you too have been in this situation. Others may think, "What's the big deal? It's just a plant." Or "Come now, it can't be that hard to identify a plant." A friend of mine, and fellow Dger, rjuddharrison is one of our "go to" guys in the Tropical Gardening Forum. He is always willing to help anyone with answers from the mundane to quite complex, and his garden is famous among the Texas tropical gardens. Yet even he was on an identification quest regarding a tree that he grew from an unknown seed. Now granted, he had some starting points such as the appearance of the seed, and the location it was found, but still after 177 posts, the tree is closer to a name, but not positively identified. In another post, the incomparable AlohaHoya, nursery owner, and botanical guru of the Big Island of Hawaii, posted a picture of a bloom she did not immediately recognize. That one we nailed in just a few posts. She had helped the rest of us so many times, that we all would have done anything necessary to get her an answer, just as a way of saying, "thanks for all your help".
And that brings me back to the wonderful, friendly, helpful folks on Dave's Garden. When books fail you, when the Internet just doesn't have what you are looking for, but keeps pointing you to the DG Plant Files, you have been given the best tool available for any gardening question. Whether you post in one of the Beginner's Forums, or in a specific plant or regional forum, the combined knowledge of the member's of this site are at your disposal. Initially the botanical expertise of ecrane3, Farmerdill, WeeNel, or any of a dozen other helpful folks will attempt to solve your dilemma, and this is usually right first try. But occasionally even they will need a little help, and they know where to go to get the answers. Bottom line is that by posting a picture and a question on Dave's Garden, you will almost always find out what you have, where to place it in your garden, and how to care for it. Then you can pay it forward, and help turn the frustration of the next calculus student into a solved sudoku puzzle. And so it grows...
Except for the picture of my books, all of these pictures are of plants identified by members of Dave's Garden. Thanks!
About Shari Scott
For most of my 53 years I have been an avid traveler, and luckily I married one as well. We are now living (for the 2nd time) on the tiny island of Kwajalein in the middle of the Pacific. I have gardened in places as varied as the Rocky Mountains and the desert of Saudi Arabia, and many points in between. My passions include, but are not limited to: Family, friends, music, good conversation, and the wonders to be found in the oceans of our planet.