Identifying plants can be as much fun as it can be educational. Start with the obvious characteristics of a plant and then fill in the blanks. Unless you are very skilled or a plant has distinct markings, avoid trying to identify them in winter. Regional field guides or identification keys are the most helpful tools. Have a sketch book to take down notes and render quick drawings. Take along a camera; pictures are essential for accurate plant identification.
Start with the foliage. Examine the shape and size of the leaves. Next, check to see if the outer edge or margin of the leaf is smooth or serrated. It is helpful to know whether a plant is evergreen or deciduous, but not always possible in the summer. Conifers are easy since they have needles or scales all year long. The number of needles on a pine will always be the same for each species. Determine whether foliage is a yellow-green, blue-green or forest green. Also whether the foliage is light, medium or dark. Some deciduous trees will also have species with red, purple, yellow or variegated foliage. Sometimes the veins in the leaves are very pronounced or a different color. Check the underside of the leaf for a different shade or downy hairs. It is the small differences that will matter when a plant is difficult to identify.
Stems and Buds
If a stem is woody, it is most likely to be a tree or shrub. Herbaceous stems will be green and pliable. Some plants start out pliable and become woody over time. This is why other characteristics may be more helpful in young plants. Some plants have very distinctive buds in early spring. Examining the buds can help you place the plant into a group such as maple, cherry or oak.
Bark can be helpful when identifying mature trees. At a distance tree bark may look the same, but up close there are many variations. Look for plated bark with patches or squares, or furrowed bark with vertical lines. Some bark will have multiple colors or even stripes. Another characteristic may be stringy or peeling bark. The bark of young trees can look very similar and may not be very helpful.
A plant in flower is easy to identify. Hybrid flowers may be more difficult because they have been altered. They may be sterile and have missing reproductive parts. They also may have been bred to have more petals than usual. Colors have also been developed that do not occur in nature. Wildflowers will have all of their natural parts and are easy to identify. Compare the inner features like pistols, stamens and seeds. When in doubt, use the other characteristics of the plant to help.
Fruit and Cones
Some conifers can be hard to tell apart. The cones can be very helpful. Even if there are no cones on the tree, look on the ground underneath it. Cones vary greatly in size from 1/2 inch to 1 foot. The color and size of the berries and fruit can be helpful when identifying plants. Notice whether the fruit is hanging singly or in clusters. Open up the fruit and study the seeds inside. Good reference materials should tell you how many seeds to expect and what they should look like.
When identifying edible plants, use a guide intended for that purpose. Guides compiled simply to identify plants may be less specific. Only ingest edible plants you feel you can identify 100 percent.
Taking back parts of a plant to study later is a common practice. It also helps to take pictures of your plants. Take a shot of the whole plant since overall form can be important. Then take close-ups of each part of the plant. If you are unable to identify a plant in the field, you can go back and continue your search.