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Plant Identification by Seeds

Image by, courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt

The task of identifying seeds is more involved than walking through a garden and trying to identify the different names of seeds. Rather than using only one method, most seed scientists use different ways for identifying seeds, making seed identification both an art and a science. Most weed and agriculture seeds have been photographed or drawn. Another process for identifying seeds is known as dichotomous keys in which seed scientists discover seeds using subsequent steps to narrow down a seed’s identity.


Seed identification, known as seed morphology, is useful in taxonomy, which is the science of naming, classifying and describing plants and animals. It’s used in forensic work, weed science, agriculture and anthropology. Identifying seed structure can also be useful in identifying races of various plants of economic significance.


There's a wide diversity in the size and weight of seeds. Some seeds such as orchid seeds are so tiny they can’t be seen with the naked eye, while seeds from rain forest legumes can weigh almost 2 pounds, according to the United States National Arboretum website.

Visual Identification of Seeds

Seed depictions, known as plates, help identify a seed. These may consist of photographs, seed drawings and descriptors. Seed scientists who use this method for seed identification must have exceptional visual skills for comparing seeds. When a seed scientist identifies a seed, he uses descriptors, which are written descriptions of the seed that confirm identification.

Dichotomous Keys

Plant seeds are identified by using seed keys known as dichotomous keys. Using dichotomous keys of identification involves a sequence of steps in which choices are narrowed down until a seed or organism is properly identified. Each step involves two choices leading to the correct name of a seed. For example, a seed scientist chooses between one of two statements that best describes the seed for which he is searching. Then two more statements are left from which to choose. Through this narrowing down process a particular seed is eventually identified.


Plant seeds are identified by their size, shape, texture and color, according to A common misconception is that seeds are identified only by their overall size, but each individual part of a seed is also examined when identifying a plant seed. This also applies to shape and texture, as the shapes and textures of each separate part of a seed should be considered. Different parts of a seed may have different shapes and textures, yet they all are a part of the same seed.

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