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Wild Plant Identification

mistletoe on dead tree image by Julie F from

Wild plants can be friends or enemies. They can provide free food to those who know which plants to gather, but they can also cause harm or discomfort to the unsuspecting hiker. Wild plants are identified using a series of physical characteristics and growing patterns, so learning to identify wild plants requires attention to detail.


Learning to identify wild plants can help for camping and hiking trips, especially if you are trying to spot (and avoid) common allergens or other unpleasant plants like poison oak. Mistletoe is another common poisonous plant in the wild which makes an appearance at many holiday celebrations. With light green flowers and white or light reddish orange berries, mistletoe can be seen growing in the trees on which they are feeding parasites. When ingested, the berries can be fatal to adults and children.


Identifying wild plants starts with surveying the local climate. Knowing which plants grow in a local area can greatly narrow down the selection of plant types which are likely to be growing in your area. Observe where the plant grows within its local environment and determine whether it is in a woody area, a swamp, a forest or a field.


To determine a wild plant's type, pay attention to its growing location and physical properties (flowers, fragrance, fruit and leaf structure). The time of year when a plant grows, blooms or bears fruit can yield specific information about the type of wild plant. Each wild plant falls into a growth form type that can help classify where it stands in the plant kingdom. Determining the growth form of a wild plant can help you in figuring out how to identify it. Growth forms include shrubs, trees, ferns, herbs and vines.


Examining the leaves of a wild plant closely can tell you a great deal about its identity. Observe the pattern by which the leaves are attached to each attachment point, called a node, and record whether the leaves are attached one at a time, in bunches or in large groups. Poison oak can often be identified by its oak-like leaves which cluster in groups of three to a node.

Edible Plants

elderberries image by Clivia from

Wild plant identification is helpful when looking for food in natural environments. Common edible plants found in the wild include blackberries, elderberries, mint and clover. When foraging for edible plants from the wild, care must be taken to avoid falling for look-alike plants that may make you sick. The elderberry is a berry that grows on a shrub, which is commonly eaten, baked into pies, or brewed into wine. When blueberries grow in flat clusters, they are safe to eat. If they are red in color, or if the berries appear to grow in bunches or in a ring, they can make you ill.

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