Learning to identify plants common in your locality not only helps you to make smarter choices when planning what to plant. It also allows you to connect more with your local environment. Woody plants, by definition, have tough stems that help the plant withstand harsh weather and remain throughout the year. Because of their permanence in the world around you, you may want to identify the woody plants that have taken up residence in your garden, yard or community.
Woody plants develop secondary growth in their stems, allowing them to survive for more than one season. Herbaceous plants, on the other hand, have soft, flexible stems and tend not to persist throughout the year. Although trees probably come to mind first when thinking of woody plants, this category also includes shrubs and vines, according to the University of Tennessee's Department of Plant Science.
Plant identification is inexpensive. At most, you'll need a hand lens for observing details on plants and notebook for recording your observations. Once you've collected information about the plant you want to identify, a field guide is the best place to turn for a beginner, according to naturalist Jim Conrad. Field guides provide photos or illustrations of species, as well as detailed descriptions and information on the plant's life cycle, range and habitat. Most public libraries have field guides relevant to their region.
You can observe many distinguishing details from a plant's leaves, so look at leaves first. The Peterson field guide "Eastern Trees" organizes around leaf type and arrangement. Leaves may be broad, needle-like or succulent. If a plant has broad leaves, note whether they emerge from the stem in pairs opposite each other, singly and alternating sides or in a circular pattern around the stem. Note, too, whether a leaf bud gives rise to a single leaf or multiple leaflets.
Observe and note as many details as you can about the plant: its size and shape--some trees have sprawling canopies while others grow upright or in a globular shape--as well as color and texture of the bark. If the plant produces flowers, fruit or nuts, study the details of these too.
Notice the area around the plant also. Describe the plant's habitat, making sure its habitat and range match those for any possible species you identify in your field guide. For example, it is unlikely that you will find a swamp plant on a windswept rocky outcropping.