Many people have experienced the circumstance of going for a walk or visiting a plant nursery, having a plant catch the eye, and not having a clue as to its provenance. Wild plants of the wood and meadow are difficult to identify. Finding a comprehensive plant guide for your particular geographical region helps narrow down the list of possible candidates; another reference that is invaluable to have on hand is a guide to commonly found weeds.
The most important characteristic to consider when ascertaining the identity of a plant is to determine the plant's type. For example, the presence of a single main trunk is a good indicator that your specimen is a tree. Some trees are multistemmed, crape myrtles for example, and differ from categorization as a shrub or bush mainly by virtue of height. Low-growing green plants are known as forbs. Those that die back to the ground each year but return from roots are perennials, and green plants that die every year but return by seedlings set from seed produced during the current year are annual plants.
During the growing season, leaves are one of the primary means identifying a particular plant, since flowers usually only occur during specific times of year. Leaf texture, shape and border are the main means of leaf identification. Leaves can be matte or glossy, such as those of the magnolia. Guidebooks also frequently describe plant leaves’ texture as hairy, smooth or leathery; these are important components of plant identification. The architecture of the leaf’s borders or margins is another significant trait, as margins can be toothed, smooth or lobed, as with oak leaves. Leaf shape is important, so note whether it is long and narrow, oval, circular, palmate, that is shaped like a palm leaf, needle-like, heart-shaped or wider at the tip than at the base.
Flower structure is the final primary method of recognizing a plant. Flower color is the most obvious feature, but other factors come into play. The time of year the flower appears is a major aspect, since most plants can be divided into spring, summer or autumn bloomers. Flower shape is another quality. Many flowers can be categorized either as daisy-like or bell-like. How the flowers are arranged is also a big giveaway. For instance, flowers can grow in spikes, on drooping stalks or in clusters. For some classes of plants, flowers that are small and insignificant are another identifying attribute.
Using the fruiting body of a plant in determining its identity is a secondary method, as some plants have fruits that are hard to find or rarely set fruit at all. Since some plants reproduce mainly by means other than seed, fruit will be completely absent. If the plant in question does produce a fruit, note its color, shape, location, season of ripeness and odor. Never attempt to taste a fruit unless you’re already sure of the plant before you, since many berries can be poisonous.
Bark is one way of guessing a tree or shrub’s identity in the winter months when other main attributes are missing. Bark can be smooth, such as that of cherry, or rough, like oak and maple. Bark can be stippled or studded, as with the hackberry tree, or papery and exfoliating, as with birch and sycamore. Color is another factor. Because color can vary between individual specimens, this is a less reliable quality.
Where a plant grows is an oft-overlooked attribute to the casual observer. Take note of the type of environment where the plant is found. All of these factors can significantly narrow the field of candidates for who your plant is. Some plants are also frequently found growing in proximity to common companions, and many guidebooks will note these plant groups, or communities.