Plants define and shape the landscape, from the grass underfoot to the trees towering overhead. Then, too, there are the spaces shaped by human hands--flower beds, vegetable gardens, orchards--that improve and brighten people's lives. With almost 275,000 species of plants on Earth, learning more about these organisms begins with species identification.
Plant identification connects to the science of taxonomy, or classification. Swedish physician Carolus Linnaeus developed the current taxonomical system in the 18th century, classifying plants based on their relationships to each other and organizing them in a hierarchy beginning with kingdom--a collection of organisms that share basic traits--and descending to species, organisms so closely related that they can produce fertile offspring together. Plants belong to the plant kingdom. Determining which taxonomical groups, or taxa, they belong to after that helps you proceed to identifying a precise species.
Within the plant kingdom, plants can be divided into four large groups, called phyla. Bryophtes include mosses and other plants that do not have vascular systems. Ferns have vascular systems but do not produce seeds. Gymnosperms produce seeds but not flowers, and the flowering plants, or angiosperms, produce both seeds and flowers. Deciding where the plant you're trying to identify fits is the first step toward classification.
Identifying plant species requires few tools, and a strong attention to detail is the best asset you can bring to your identification endeavors. On his website Backyard Nature, naturalist Jim Conrad recommends acquiring a good field guide or identification key for plant species in your region. Most public libraries carry plant field guides. Professor and author George A. Petrides urges would-be naturalists to acquire a hand lens for studying details on the plant. A notebook or camera help you record details that may aid in later identification.
Use your senses when identifying plants. The scent, color, size, texture and shape of leaves, bark, flowers, fruits and the plant itself become essential details when identifying a plant. Note the shape of the leaves and how they are arranged on the branch. If the plant has flowers, describe the shape, color and arrangement of structures like petals and stamens. Habitat, season and geographical location are also important details that may help you draw a conclusion.
People want to identify plants for many reasons. Often, you need to identify a plant that you find in the garden to know if you should keep it or discard it as a weed. Some people learn to identify plants to help them better understand and connect to their natural environment.