Archive for February 14th, 2011

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I use a two step method of identifying plants.  I first use a profile sheet that allows me to check off key parts of a particular plant, make a sketch and collect plant samples. Then I “key” out the plant data I have collected. This allows me to indentify just about any plant I find in the wilds or in the city.

 I carry the profile sheets in my back pack when I go out in the woods or nature.  I take my color pencils with me and my profile sheet has a place on it where I draw the plant I have found.   I will put a link to an example of a good plant profile sheet you can use.

Once I have collected information about the plant I can begin to “key” the plant.

The key was actually devised over many years and categorizes the plant parts into plant family, genus and species.  You can view the key as a series of questions you answer that will allow you to get closer and closer to identifying a plant.

Pojar and MacKinnon have a great key at the beginning of each section in their book.  The Species are grouped as follows: Trees,  Shrubs, Wildflowers, Aquatics, Oddballs, Graminoids, Ferns and Allies, Mosses and Liverworts, and Lichens.


STEP ONE: Learn the basic parts of a plant.  Here is a link to a good source online that teaches you about the 19 basic botanical parts.

STEP TWO:  fill out a profile sheet on the plant you are trying to identify. Here is a sample of an online profile sheet

STEP THREE:  Key out the plant.  It is important to use a plant book that is designed to cover plants from your region of the world and includes plant keys.

 You choose family first.  Look at the plant and decide where it might fit.  It is a tree, a shrub, a wildflower, grass or sedge? Choose one.  Let’s say that we have come upon a tree.  Look at it and use a profile sheet to gather some information about this tree.

Here are the questions that you may want to answer.

Stem and Leaves

Stem where leaf is attached:  stipules?   no stipules?

Leaf blade  smooth edges?    toothed edges? 

Leaf petiole   long?    normal?   absent?

Leaf type (look for buds) ”  simple? ”  compound?

Arrangement of leaves (at nodes)  alternate?  opposite?  whorled?  spiral?

Needles?  Are they flat?  Round?  In groups of 2 or 5?  Other?

Next: draw a picture of the tree, its shape over all.  What does the bark look like?  Look closely at the leaves or needles.  Does the tree have a cone or flower? Take a sample.  Put it in a collection bag to study.

Now you have a profile sheet and can use a key to study what you have collected.

In the Pojar and MacKinnon book you will find small pictures that will allow you to identify the tree type.  Then you will be asked if the tree has leaves or needles and depending on what you choose to answer, you will progress to deeper information.  The key uses deduction.  Here is an example.  Let say I am trying to identify that tree again.  I am pretty sure it is a pine tree of some sort.  I look at the key for trees.

1a.  Leaves needle-like or scale- like evergreen, seeds usually in cones, not enclosed in a fruit (like a conifer).

2a – Leaves scale-like concealing the twigs                         Or

2b – Leaves needle-like, not concealing the twigs


Under 2b I find other choices:

Needles in clusters?

Needles in clusters of 5?…..then it is a Pinus monticola

Needles in cluster of 2?……then it is a Pinus contoria

 My tree has needles in clusters of 5 –  I find that the tree is a Pinus monticola or a Western White Pine.

Pretty easy!   The trick is to have a good book that has a well prepared key.  It gets far more complex when you start trying to identify plants that flower or grasses and sedges.

If you really want to learn plant profiling and keying…pick up a copy of Elpel’s “Botany in a Day”. Thomas Elpel uses the patterns method of plant identification.  He teaches plant parts for profiling. He has keys for all the plant species and families. And, he teaches you how to understand important patterns found in the plant kingdoms.

Elpel also teaches about the hierarchy of the plant kingdom, from top to bottom.  Here it is for review:

Division (phyla)







 The last three divisions are what most plant identification books and plant keys focus on. Profiling a flower is much harder than profiling a tree.  There is just so much more to know.  Basically flowering plants can be categorized into two classes:  Dicots and Monocots.

 What division of the plant kingdom does your flowering plant belong to?  Is your plant a monocot or a dicot?  Is your dicot plant a member of the Aster family?  How many petals does it have? These are just a few questions that help you profile your plant. Once you have answered these questions you will be able to easily find the right key for the plant.

 Here is some basic information about flowering plants.

 Dicots:  (two seed leaves, netted veins, usually tap rooted, usually complex branching, floral parts mostly in 4’s and 5’s.)there are simple flowers and complex flowers.
Monocots: (one seed leaf, parallel veins in the leaves, horizontal rootstalks, usually simple branching, floral parts mostly in 3’s)

 Flower types include simple and complex classes.  These classes include Buttercup, Rose, Gentian and Aster, Arrowhead, Lily, and Orchid.

 “Botany in a Day” will help you identify the correct family of a plant.  It is much easier to identify the proper genus or species of a plant after you have accurately identified the proper family. Use Botany in a Day to find the correct family, then you can use color picture books to help narrow down choices.  

 Elpel’s book has pictures and explanations of these flower types. He also has included profile pages specifically for flowers. He also covers the evolution of plants.   Visually viewing the actual plant is essential to learning about it.  And the viewing needs to include deep study of each part of the plant.   Once you understand the patterns of each plant family you will easily be able to identify and “key” the plant. 

For instance: the pattern of the Mustard family:  4 petals and 6 stamens – 4 tall 2 short.

 The pattern of the Mint family is that it has square stalks and opposite leaves, often aromatic.

 There are plenty of resources on the internet to help you identify plants also.  Here is a link to a plant guide put together by the US Department of agriculture.  It is plant guide for the Common Snowberry – http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_syal.pdf 

Create a study group or skillshare to learn about plants.

 One thing you might consider doing is creating a study group or skillshare group using “Botany in a Day” and other books to learn together.  You might have people in your group who know a few plants and be willing to share with you.

 One last thing: storytelling.  I need storytelling to remember things.  I have a Celtic mind and soul.  Because I love storytelling I am fascinated with ethnobotany.  Ethnobotany discusses how the plant was used by indigenous peoples.  Pojar and Mackinnon’s book includes the ethnobotany of the each plant.  I have also included two great references with this essay.  Erna Gunther and Nancy Turner have great books about the ethnobotany of plants in the Cascadian bioregion.  

I wish to acknowledge my plant teachers who taught me to be able to identify plants through profiling and keying. My favorite plant identification teachers are Thomas J. Elpel who wrote” Botany in a Day”, and Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon who edited” Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast”.

Hope this explanation helps you get started on how to identify plants.  Until next time – see you in the deep woods!

 Next time: Wapato – the liberation plant


 Gunther, Erna (1945) Ethnobotany of Western Washington, The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.

Elpel, Thomas J. (1996) Botany in a Day:  The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families, 4th Ed (2004) HOPS press LLC, Pony, Montana

Pojar & McKinnon, (1994) Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia

Turner, Nancy J. (1979) Plants in British Columbia Indian Technology, British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Online resources

Thomas Elpel’s website: http://www.wildflowers-and-weeds.com/

Website of Pojar and Mackinnon’s book “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast” http://www.lonepinepublishing.com/cat/9781551055305

US department of agriculture plant guide:  http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_syal.pdf

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