Nurseries, farms and garden stores are full of dozens, or even hundreds, of potted plant species. Identifying a potted plant can help you research its cultural needs to ensure it's the right fit for your home or garden. Even if you're not familiar with houseplant or container garden species, a couple of plant detective strategies can help you snoop out the type of potted plant you're looking at.
Read the potted plant's label, whether it's on a plastic stab sticking in its potting soil or plastered onto the outside of the pot. If present, such labels will clearly identify not only the potted plant's common and scientific names, but also often its growing requirements. If the potted plant doesn't have a label, continue to Step 2.
Measure the potted plant's spread--the horizontal distance between its branches--and height using a ruler. Never estimate or guess the dimensions of the plant.
Review the foliage and stem growths of the plant. Oregon State University reports that a plant's foliage is one of its most easily identifiable defining characteristics. Important foliage aspects to note include its texture (e.g. whether it's smooth or bumpy or furry), color and shape.
Inspect the plant for any other physical characteristics, such as the shape, size and hue of any present seeds, and the color, shape and dimensions of its flowers.
Call your local USDA cooperative extension office. Relay the identifying characteristics of the potted plant that you noticed in Steps 2 through 4. Colorado State University says that most plant experts can quickly identify a plant's species and variety via telephone without visually confirming the plant just by hearing its identifying aspects.
Take the entire potted plant to the USDA extension officer if he can't identify it over the telephone. If you can't take the plant because its pot is too big or because it's in a nursery and you don't want to purchase it, collect a sample by snipping off a flower and some leaves connected to its stem. Alternatively, take a photo of it. Bring the sample or photo to the extension officer.