Archive for the ‘Plant identification schemes’ Category


stem cellular structure of the water Milofoil

“Plants are all chemists,  Tirelessly assembling the molecules of the world.”  -Gary Snyder, Introduction, *Pharmako/poeia

Why should you, the aspiring naturalist be concerned with the cellular design of plants?  One answer might be – It is in this beautiful design that you will draw closer to plants and their ability to heal humanity.  Another reason might be that it is in the cells of plants that knowledge of the evolutionary past and future genetic path are stored.  It is also in this knowledge that you will come to know how at risk the earth is because of the efforts of a few who are attempting to genetically modify and capture the cells of plants.  The genetic material of cells store the combined ancestral knowledge of plants and no one has a right to destroy our link to our ancestors or our future.

By understanding the cellular structure of plants you will come closer to being able to identify plants very fast and also learn the medicinal, nutritional, utilitarian, and social connection between plants and humans.  You will hopefully join the movement to educate yourself about plants and move native plants out of sanctuaries and place them in all our environments. This knowledge was fast slipping from us, now there is a movement to end “plant blindness”.

Come with me on a voyage to learn the basics of plant cellular biology.  Before I begin, one story (because I am a Celtic woman – a story at the beginning, a story at the end of each lesson).

A couple of years ago I was very lucky to have spent time with a retired botany professor who loved to teach “newbie’s”-  or plant lovers who know very little about plant identification.  The man was very patient and had considerable knowledge of plants from my part of the world.  He fully understood that when most people go out in the forest they see plants of the same species as pretty much looking all alike  One weekend he taught us about conifers.  Identification of the many conifers in my part of the world can be quite confusing. They do look somewhat alike.  Unless a tree has a very different looking bark or shape it is hard to identify them.  That is unless you get very close- I mean on a cellular level of closeness.

Our teacher taught us about cell physiology and plant organelles before we went into the forest.  He was especially keen to teach about STOMATA BLOOMS which would allow us to identify many different species of conifers. The stomata are minute pores in a plant organelle in which gas exchange occurs.

Stomata cells up close

A stoma (pl. stomata) is a microscopic pore on the surface (epidermis) of land plants. It is surrounded by a pair of specialized epidermal cells called guard cells, which act as a turgor-driven valve that open and close the pores in response to given environmental conditions.

Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere enters the stomata and oxygen produced by photosynthesis diffuses out of the stomata. Water molecules also escape through the stomata, especially in hot, dry weather. Water loss through the stomata is known as transpiration. If the plant loses too much water it will wilt and eventually die. To cope with this dilemma, plants have evolved paired guard cells on each side of the stoma.

Each tree (plant) expresses the design of stomata blooms differently.

Western Red Cedar Stomata cells - butterfly pattern

The design and color of the stomata help us plant lovers to more easily identify the plants.  For instance the underside of the Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) needles has a butterfly pattern which is actually a stomata bloom.   You cannot actually see the guard cells without a microscope, on most plants they’re totally invisible to the naked eye. But you can see the STOMATA BLOOM. Depending on the species and the growing conditions, there are 100-1000 stomata per square millimeter on the underside of a leaf.

Plant cell biology is as complex as human cell biology. Understanding the healthy plant cell physiology can help the naturalist, gardener and plant lover to live closer to the plant world and understand their needs. Understanding this physiology will also keep you from being pulled into the propaganda and lies of big pharma, genetically modified corporates, and other scientists gone mad. There is no easy or fast way to teach you everything there is to know about these cells. So, I am just going to share a few things that I found very interesting about plant cells and plant organelles. Then at the end I will have links so you can further your education in plant cell physiology (blessed be to wiki-links).


Both plants and animals have cells that reflect a genetic purpose. The kindom Plantae purpose IS NOT to take care of humans.  Their purpose is to be part of a global interactive, biological, energetic community that cooperates to create balance in all things. This means developing systems of survival.

But as for plant/human cooperation – Plants take CO2 out of the environment and exhale it as oxygen. This important transaction happens both on the cellular and organelle level.  This is probably the most well-known reason for plant/human appreciation.  We need oxygen to survive.  Humans use plants as food because plant cells store nutrients, carbohydrates and chemical compounds that keep us well.

Looking at a plant cell and an animal cell you will see some things are the same, and some things are very different.

At the smallest scale of plant cellular biology are molecular interactions of photosynthesis and internal diffusion of water, minerals, and nutrients. At the largest scale are the processes of plant development, seasonality, dormancy, and reproductive control.

The cells of plants have evolved differently from animals because plants cannot move.  Plants defend themselves chemically from herbivores, pathogens, and competition from other plants. Their cellular composition supports these interactions. The cells also produce compounds that defend against disease, permit survival during drought, and prepare plants for dormancy.  There are even compounds used to attract pollinators or herbivores to spread ripe seeds. (Yes, we humans are often used by plants to spread pollen and seeds). And in exchange we humans have learned to use those compounds to heal ourselves – as in plant medicine,food and for utility.

I read a couple of research reports on plant plasticity and adaptation some years ago. In these reports scientists and a plant specialist wanted to know how plants interact with threats from herbivores and environmental dangers.  They wanted to know if the reaction to threat was immediate or slow-reactive.  For a long time scientists and the rest of us saw plants as nonreactive.

In both studies the scientist collected information on plant reaction to threats including humans and found that the reaction happened on the cellular/chemical level and that change was almost immediate.  Plants changed their own chemical biology to release bitters, poisons, and chemicals to protect themselves.  The plant cells were designed to offer different mechanisms for different situations.  This process sometimes also inadvertently caused humans and animals to change physiologically for the better. Human involvement in plant medicine and in some cases mind-altering physical changes have occurred for millions of years.  I have listed links to this research at the end of this article.

Plant cells are mostly oblong in shape, animal cells are mostly round  Compared to animal cells, plant cell walls are tough.  They are strong enough to withstand osmotic pressure. Up to three strata or layers may be found in plant cell walls.  Plant cells have a cell wall that restricts the shape of the plant cells and this is what limits its flexibility and mobility. Cell walls in most plant tissues also function as storage depots for carbohydrates that can be broken down and reabsorbed to supply the metabolic and growth needs of the plant.

Up to three strata or layers may be found in plant cell walls:[5]

  • The middle lamella, a layer rich in pectins. This outermost layer forms the interface between adjacent plant cells and glues them together.
  • The primary cell wall, generally a thin, flexible and extensible layer formed while the cell is growing.
  • The secondary cell wall, a thick layer formed inside the primary cell wall after the cell is fully grown. It is not found in all cell types. In some cells, such as found xylem, the secondary wall contains lignin, which strengthens and waterproofs the wall.

For instance the bark of a tree is actually layers of live and dead cells arranged in layers. One layer that lies next to the heartwood of a tree called Sapwood, or xylem, carries water up from the roots to the leaves.  As the cells of Xylem age, they turn to heartwood. The next layer out, the cork cambium, covers the tree from twig to root. The cambium which is also called the phellogen, is normally only one cell layer thick and as the cells divides it creates the outer bark layer called cork or phellem.  The outer layer of bark on most trees helps keep out water and weather and insects. It acts as an insulation layer and is the product of mass cellular division.  The cells of the cork layer produce a substance called suberin, a waxy substance which protects the stem and trunk against water loss, the invasion of insects, and prevents infections by bacteria and fungal spores. Now, understanding this plant cellular biology you probably see why stripping the bark off trees can cause tree death or disease.  We humans have forgotten valuable information that would help us to better steward the earth and live harmoniously with plants, especially the great trees.

What is the same and what is different

Plant Cell Structure - click for larger view

Both plant cells and animal cells have: Cytoplasm, Mitochondria, Endoplasmic Reticulum (Smooth and Rough), Golgi Apparatus, Microtubules/ Microfilaments, Flagella, and a Nucleus.

In plants the nuclear and cell division are mainly localized in special regions called meristems. This information is important to know if you will be working with seeds, grafting, or hybridization.  This rapidly dividing region will either elongate the tips of stems and roots or expand the girth of the plant.  In animals, cells divide everywhere, all the time. The division process is essentially the same for plants and animals. The main difference comes when it is time for cytoplasmic division. A plant cell builds a new cell wall to divide its two daughter cells, and an animal cell will pinch in two, or cleave.

Both plant and animal cells have plasma membranes. Plant cells have cell walls; animal cells do not.  Plant cells have cell walls in addition to plasma membranes, not instead of plasma membranes.  The cell wall of a plant is made from cellulose and is much tougher.

Plant cells have chloroplast for photosynthesis whereas animal cells do not. Animal cells are round whereas plant cells are rectangular. All animal cells have centrioles whereas only some lower plant forms have centrioles in their cells.  Plant cells have one very large vacuole in the center and animal cells have a very small vacuole.

Plant cells have both mitochondria and chloroplasts.  The chloroplasts turn the sunlight into glucose. The mitochondria turn glucose into energy (ATP).

Plant cells contain chlorophyll, a chemical compound that interacts with light in a way that enables plants to manufacture their own food rather than consuming other living things as animals do.

A plant cell has plasmodesmata –  which are narrow channels that act as intercellular cytoplasmic bridges to facilitate communication and transport of materials between plant cells. Plant cells are eukaryotic – A eukaryote is an organism whose cells contain complex structures enclosed within membranes.

“Man sees the morning as the beginning of a new day, he takes germination as the start in the life of a plant, and withering as its end.  But this is nothing more than biased judgment on his part.  Nature is one. There is no starting point or destination, only an unending flux, a continuous metamorphosis of all things.”

–       Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming


Cells alive – interactive animal and plant cell website – http://www.cellsalive.com/cells/cell_model.htm

Differences between plant and animal cells – http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Differences_between_animal_and_plant_cells#ixzz1lqkl5zMS

Biology online: a site to teach you biology, botany, cellular biology and other useful biological and botanical science.  http://quizlet.com/5551829/biology-test-1-flash-cards/

Plant cell physiology – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_cell    viewed on the internet 2/7/2012

Karban, Richard, Agrawal, Anurag A., Thaler, Jennifer S. and Adler, Lynn S.. Induced plant responses and information content about risk of herbivory, Tree – Ecology and Evolution  vol. 14, no. 11, pages 83-86 November 1999

Buhner, Stephen Harrod, (2002) The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River, VT


  • Organelles – mean little organs.  They are located inside the cell structure and have specific roles to play in how cells work.
  •  stoma (pl. stomata) is a microscopic pore on the surface (epidermis) of land plants. It is surrounded by a pair of specialized epidermal cells called guard cells, which act as a turgor-driven valve that open and close the pores in response to given environmental conditions.
  • TurgorTurgor pressure pushes the plasma membrane against the cell wall of plant, bacteria, and fungi cells as well as those protist cells which have cell walls.
  • A vacuole is a membrane-bound organelle which is present in all plant and fungal cells and some protist, animal[1] and bacterial cells.[2] Vacuoles are essentially enclosed compartments which are filled with water containing inorganic and organic molecules. They have multi-functions including:
  •  isolating materials that might be harmful or a threat to the cell,
  • holding and exporting waste products
  • contain water in plant cells
  • Maintaining internal hydrostatic pressure or turgor within the cell
  • Maintaining an acidic internal pH
  • Containing small molecules
  • Exporting unwanted substances from the cell
  • Allows plants to support structures such as leaves and flowers due to the pressure of the central vacuole
  • In seeds, stored proteins needed for germination are kept in ‘protein bodies’, which are modified vacuoles.[4]

  NEW UPDATE !   New Friend and Sponsor of Radical Botany:  Thanks farmers! 

Daggawalla seeds and herbs.  Open pollinated seeds and many specialized herbs.

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PLANT BLINDNESS is a modern phenomenon whereby humans walk through their world each day and do not notice plants, nor do they know the name, the physiological, ethnobotanical, herbological or ecological connection between themselves and plants.”

Evolution of Plants

First off you should know I am not a scientist.  I am a naturalist.  My knowledge of plants comes from a personal relationship and constant observation and study.  I read everything I can find, including the works of various plant and biological scientists.  I forage for plants and use them as food, utility, medicine, and spiritual growth.  I am teaching from what I know  and what I am learning and offer what I know as one method of connecting with the plant “kindom”.  Yes, KINDOM.  Kindom is different from the hypothesis of Kingdom, which is hierarchical in organization.  Kindom, is different – the hypothesis put forward by the likes of plant specialist and scientist Dr. Alan (Mushroom) Kapuler – says that plants and animals and all species all need each other for survival.  There is not a higher group organization, rather all species interact and need each other in cooperation. Relationships between all species is not competitive but cooperative.

Here is a link to Kapuler’s web blog for further discussion of cooperative relationships between species:



Why do you need to know botany?  Because my goal is to allow each and every one of you to go into a natural area and identify every plant.  A goal that will only be reachable if you are well versed in Botany and plant identification.

Do you know that the connection between humans and the natural world is breaking down so fast that we now have a definition for humans that are disconnected from plants.  It is called “Plant Blindness”.  PLANT BLINDNESS is a modern phenomenon whereby humans walk through their world each day and do not notice plants, nor do they know the name, the physiological, ethnobotanical, herbological or ecological connection between themselves and plants.

It is my hope that you will learn all about plants on this Radical Botany blog and it will be taught in a way that you can easily absorb and apply to your life as a plant lover, naturalist or budding scientist.

So let us begin.

Botany is the study of plants.  It is a scientific process whereby plants are examined from the cellular to the ecological levels.  A scientist who studies Botany or plants are called a botanist.  A plant lover can also be called a naturalist, a gardener, a horticulturist, or one of my favorite “a tree hugger”.  Unabashedly I am a tree hugger and a naturalist.


According to the theories of science,  hundreds of millions of years ago, tiny specks of protoplasm appeared on earth in the ancient seas,  and were the beginning of all our plants and animals.  The protoplasm specks – a one cell organism that became plants developed thick walls and developed the green coloring matter as chlorophyll which enabled them to make food from substances in the air, water and soil.  Slowly over time the plants were able to leave water and adapt to land growing and producing multi-cell organisms.

In the past botanists regarded plant as meaning a multicellular, eukaryotic organism that generally does not have sensory organs or voluntary motion and has, when complete, a root, stem, and leaves.  However this is a better description of vascular plants.  Some plants have no roots, stems or leaves.   And, plant-like organisms such as kelp are actually from the order Laminariales.

Let me go out on a limb here (pun intended) and make this statement about plants: they are alive versus being parasitic and not alive.

A second characteristic of a plant it is that it refers to any organism that is photoautotrophic—produces its own food from raw inorganic materials and sunlight.  However, Blue-green algae and certain bacteria and cynophytes are photoautotrophic and are not classified as plants.

The same is true for mushrooms.  A mushroom- the fruiting body of a fungus (Kindom Fungi)  is not considered a plant. It is closer to the animal kingdom.  A mushroom is not photoautotrophic at all, but saprophytic for the most part however, some fungi and bacteria is parasitic.

Traditionally, all living things were divided into five kingdoms:


I know, I know – scientists are now trying to say there are only three kingdoms: ArchaeaEubacteriaEukaryota and these kingdoms reflect whether the object of study has a cell wall or not.  I prefer to work with the five kingdom (or Kindom) system because it allows us to generally differentiate between major groups of living organisms.

So let us say that plants are part of the kindom Plantae.  Plants include familiar organisms such as flowering plants, conifers, ferns, mosses, and green algae, but do not include seaweeds like kelp, nor fungi and bacteria.

Plants can be grouped as follows:

First informal group – GREEN ALGAE

Green algae Division name: Chlorophyta and Charophyta of which there are between 3800 and 4300 species

Second Informal Group – BROYPHYTES – land plants that do not have true vascular tissue and are therefore called non-vascular plants.

Bryophytes : Marchantiophyta also called liverworts of which there are between 6,000 and 8,000 species.

BryophytesAnthocerotophyta also called hornworts of which there are between 100 to 200 species

BryophytesBryophyta also called mosses of which there are about 12,000 species

Third Informal Group of plants -PTERIDOPHYES- The pteridophytes are vascular plants (plants with xylem and phloem) that produce neither flowers nor seeds.

PteridophytesLycopodiophyta also called Club Mosses of which there are approximately 1,200 species

Pteridophytes: Pteridophyta also called  ferns, whisk ferns and horsetails of which there are approximately 11,000 species.

Fourth Informal Group of Plants: SEED PLANTS

Seed plants: Cycadophyta also known as cycads of which there are 160 known species

Seed Plants: Ginkgophyta also known as ginkgo of which there is one known species

Seed Plants: Pinophyta also known as conifers of which there are 630 known species

Seed Plants: Gnetophyta  (woody plants) also known as gnetophytes of which there are approximately 70 known species.

Seed Plants: Magnoliophyta also known as flowering plants of which there are approximately 258,650 species

My focus for Radical Botany will be worts, clubs, mosses, ginko, flowering plants and conifers as well as other trees found in the Cascadian bio-region: An area that includes British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon State, and Northern  California.

Next time: Cell structure of Plant Groups: flowering plants and conifers

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I went into the forest today to be thankful for the bounty and ask Great Spirit who loves us all to teach me about these amazing beings we call plants. I had that feeling I often have that I once lived in the forest with my tribe and my people. I feel at home in that forest. The farmers have brought in honey bees and the oak and maple have attracted the bees and other pollinators.  The air is churning with activity.  It is like a natural air conditioner swirling above me. The sound of the bees is so loud that I can barely hear the other sounds of nature.  Wildflowers are blooming everywhere: trillium, bleeding hearts, coral bells, false Solomon seal.  The pinks and buttercups and the wild berries are all in bloom.  The smell of the forest is sweet and musky all at once.

I have in my life time been introduced to many native plants and I have been taught about how everything is connected to this forest, even humans belong here if they will just slow down to be at peace with this place. 

It is spring and I am collecting many starts: cuttings, roots, sprouts.  Once they have roots and are strong, I will put them in pots and take them to the nearby farmers market and try to teach others about opening up their garden doors and letting the native plants back in.  It is important.  We are losing the pollinators and the fertility of the soil, and the hillsides and streams and rivers because we take out the native plants. We call them weeds and poison and chop and throw them away. These plants are our future and our hope.  Once gone, so goes our food, medicine, clean water, clean land, and beauty so great that our essential energy is affected and changed for the better.

Soon at the local farmers market I will be setting up my table and handing out simple brochures on how to incorporate native plants into gardens, farms, parks, roadsides and river and stream banks. I will sell the plants to support the overall Radical Botany project and to give back to the farm I am living on now. Carly, the land owner is allowing me to finally have a home for me and my plants.  I have moved a half dozen times in the last five years, always carrying my many plant friends with me.  We are tired. We need a real home that is safe and long term. I think I am home. I love this land. I am thankful for this land. I respect this land and the creatures and people who live here.

Thank you Great Spirit who loves us all for bringing me home.  Thank you Carly, Deb, Mitchell, Annie,  the farmers for inviting me in from the cold.

Here is a list of a few of the plants I saw today and why they are important:

Common Name Scientific Name    Ecological  Importance  and Human Use
Pacific Willow Salix lucida ssp. Salix lasiandra              

The catkins will attract insect and hummingbird pollinators, and all willows are used as butterfly host plants.

The same for Hooker’s Willow

The Fraser River Lillooet  called Pacific Willow the “match plant”.  They dried the wood and used it for both the hearth and the drill in making friction fires. The ashes were mixed with diatomaceous earth and were made into a fine white powder to treat wool.

Hooker’s Willow Salix Hookeria   The bark was used in shingle baskets, the young plants were split into twine and made into rope.
Pacific Ninebark Physocarpus capitatus Used to make small tools, but was also used as a laxative and needs to be handled properly. The flower attracts many insect pollinators and the birds will eat the berries of the plant. Beautiful shredding bark, this plant is found along streams, rivers and wetlands.
Oceanspray Holodiscus discolor Found in dry to moist, open sites (open woods, clearings ravine edges and coastal bluffs).  Commonly called ‘Ironwood” because of the hardness and strength of the wood. Was used to make digging sticks, spears, harpoon shafts, bows and arrow shafts by almost all coastal groups from BC southwards.  An infusion of berries was used to make a tea that was used to treat diarrhea. Also used as a blood tonic.  May attract as many as 50 pollinating insects.The flowers provide nectar for butterflies and insects. A caterpillar host plant for Pale Tiger Swallowtail, Lorquin’s Admiral, Echo Blue, Brown Elfin, and Spring Azure but­terflies. Oceanspray provides foraging habitat for insectivorous birds including Bushtits and Chickadees
Red Elderberry Sambucus racemosa Found along stream banks, swampy thickets, moist clearings and open forests, sea level to middle elevations. The unripe or uncooked berries are toxic can cause stomach cramps or worse. They should  always be cooked even when making Elderberry wine or jellies. The stems, bark leaves and roots, especially in fresh plants, are toxic due to the presence of cyanide-producing glycosides. Elderberry is an important caterpillar host plant and its white flowers attract hummingbirds.
Thimble berry
Rubus parviflorus


Has a white flower – petals crinkle tissue paper. Found in open sites such as clearings, road edges, shorelines etc. Has a red, raspberry-like cluster berry. The flower favorite of bumblebees and native pollinator insects. Spreads by rhizomes. Eaten by all Northwest Coast people.  Some people also collected and ate the early shoots. The berry can be easily dried.  Often mixed with Salal berries for winter food (dried).  Often mixed with native raspberries and blackcaps and used in a dried cake for winter food. The large leaves were often made into berry collecting containers.


Salmon berry
Rubus spectabilis


Has a pink to reddish purple flower. Found in moist to wet places of forests and disturbed sites. Often abundant along stream edges, at low to subalpine elevations. This wonderful wild berry blooms very early and attracts the earliest pollinators.  The berries arrive early in the season and attract several song birds. Both sprouts and berries were eaten by First Peoples.


Nookta Rose Rosa Nutkana Found in open habitats (shorelines, meadows, thickets, and streamside areas). Was often used in pit cooking. The leaves were placed over food for flavoring.  Tea from the bark were used as an eye wash. The chewed leaves were applied to bee stings and the ripe hips were cooked and fed to infants for diarrhea.Its seed-filled hips are full of vitamins A & C and are eaten by a variety of birds and mammals. Bees and but­terflies seek nectar from its flowers. A caterpillar host plant for Western Checkerspot, Mourning Cloak, and Gray Hairstreak butterflies.
Indian Plum Oemleria cerasiformis The flowers arrive very early spring to late winter – often before its leaves appear.  Important food source for pollinating insects, butterflies and the fruit is eaten by many woodland animals.  The fruit can be quite bitter and astringent so it was often mashed with sweeter berries such as Salal.  It bark was used to make tea that was used as a purgative and tonic.
Bleeding hearts Dicentra Formosa Pink heart-shaped flower. Found in moist forests, ravines, streambanks; low to middle elevations. Its namesake pink flowers attract hummingbirds and its rhizomes are reported to be medicinal by some, toxic by others. Ants feed on an oil-rich seed appendage. Bleeding heart is an important caterpillar host plant for the Clodius Parnassian.
White Oak or Garry Oak Quercus garryana A beautiful, heavy-limbed tree that is very important in helping to maintain the integrity of several low-lying ecosystems. Found in dry, rocky slopes and bluffs, sometimes in deep, rich well-drained soil. The springtime catkins (flowers) are highly attractive to honeybees and many native insect pollinators. The acorns are an important food source for ducks, deer, squirrels and other wildlife.  First peoples used the bark as one ingredient in the Saanich “4 barks” medicine used against tuberculosis and other ailments.
Big leaf Maple Acer macrophyllum Large, often multi-stemmed.  In the spring the flower will often appear with or before the leaves.  Found in dry to most sites, often with Douglas-fir, often on sites disturbed by fire, at low to middle elevations. Bigleaf maple supports a large ecosystem on its trunk, limbs and stems. These symbiotic relationships are important to native forest. Living on this tree you will often find: mosses, lichens, ferns, fungi, herb-like plants, small flowering plants etc. Many parts of the tree were used for food, medicine and utility.  Insects and bees pollinate the tree and produce about 1000 pollen grains (55µm each) for an individual flower.  Important solitary bees such as the Blue Orchard Bees, Osmia lignaria, are attracted to this tree
Fringecup Tellima grandiflora In the Saxifrage family. Found in  moist forests, glades, stream-banks, thickets and clearings; common from low to middle elevations. The Skagit pounded fringecup, boiled it and drank the tea for any kind of sickness, especially lack of appetite. Provides habitat and cover for small insects.
Yellow Wood Violet Viola glabella A common perennial in moist, shaded forests. Its flowers are yellow, with some petals boasting violet streaks. The flowers have a small spur which provides an excellent landing platform for insects, which are attracted to its nectar. A caterpillar host plant for a variety of butterfly species. Also known as stream violet.
Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica Common in moist, rich soil, often in disturbed habitat, nettles are a tasty green if cooked, a valued medicinal herb, and traditionally a good source for strong plant fiber. Nettles are also an important caterpillar host plant for the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, Satyr Anglewing, and Red Admiral butterflies.

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Click for larger image

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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Kinship with all things

For thousands of years humans have tried to categorized plants into systems that could be memorized and recalled when needed. At first plants were named after the color, smell, location and how it might be used.  Then came the domination culture and plants were named after the tribe or culture who won the battle. Wars were fought over control of trade of a plant (spice wars).  Naming a plant or species was also done to gain control over a culture. A prize of a conquest was to re-name all indigenous species. 

Over thousands of years of conquests humans began to search for a common language or naming system that would allow them to explore any area of the planet and identify a species of plants, animals or minerals – it was a search for connection to what was already known. Thus the bionomial Nomenclature method was born.

The binomial nomenclature method is a formal system of naming species of living things.  The system was devised over many centuries but was formally organized by Carl Linnaeus.  Linnaeus (1707 –1778) who was a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature.   I am going to be very clear here that Linnaeus began to organize the names of species after the culture of Europe was destroyed by hundreds of years of war, genocide and domination. During these hundreds of years most of the healers, naturalists and scientists were killed or impisoned.  Plants had names before Linnaeus but much of that information was lost due to oppression.  Institutions such as the Roman Empire and then the domination by the Roman Catholic Church destroyed the community and family education systems of European culture. In North America mass genocide decimated tribal First Peoples. The knowledge of plants was mostly lost or kept very secret by the indigeous people.  Europeans came to North America and renamed the plants and animals and geologic areas of this continent.

That said, Linnaeus was paid to name the species and he inherited a complex and confused system of knowing. The system of knowing was intentionally kept complex so that only a few knew the secrets of the plants. Plants were the key to food, medicine and access to nature and the land.  For hundreds of years a person who needed healing had to go through a priest or physician caste for prayer, herbs, and treatment (much of which was very destructive to human health and wellness).

Much of Linnaeus’ work was done in Sweden.  In the 1750s and 60s, he continued to collect and classify animals, plants, and minerals, and published several volumes. At the time of his death, he was renowned as one of the most acclaimed scientists in Europe. He added knowledge to a system of hierarchical kingship with humans at the top of the pyramid.

The essence of the binomial system of naming is this: each species name has two parts, the genus name and the species name (also known as the specific epithet), for example, Homo sapiens, which is the scientific name of the human species. Every two-part scientific name is either formed out of (modern scientific) Latin or is a Latinized version of words from other languages.

The two-part name of a species is commonly known as its Latin name. However, biologists and philologists prefer to use the term scientific name rather than “Latin name”, because the words used to create these names are not always from the Latin language, even though words from other languages have usually been Latinized in order to make them suitable for this purpose. Species names are often derived from Ancient Greek words, or words from numerous other languages, including tribal languages. Frequently species names are based on the surname of a person, such as a well-regarded scientist, or are a Latinized version of a relevant place name. This person was identified as having “discovered” the species. 

Plants had names before Linnaeus and other scientists came along and named species after themselves.  Many First Peoples find this re-naming of plants and other species as offensive and part of the genocide and domination of their culture.  I agree. But there were problems with local naming of plants.  The same plant found over large geological areas could have different names, in a different tribal language.  For instance, take the plant name “Kinnikinnick“.

 In Cascadia the scientific name is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  It was called Common Bearberry by European immigrants. And it had several tribal names as well.  The word Kinnikinnick is a eastern North American tribe (Algonquian) term meaning “smoking mixture”.

According to Erna Gunther 1 some Cascadia tribal names for the plant include:

Tribe               Tribal language name for Archtostaphylos uva-ursi

Chehalis –“ kaya’nl”

Klallam – “Kinnikinnick”

Makah –  “kwica’”

Skokomish –  “Sk!ewat”

Squaxin –  “s’quaya’dats

 But what is identified as Kinnikinnick throughout North America and Europe is actually several plants. And the word “Kinnikinnick” means “that which is mixed”.  It is also known as “a mixture that is smoked”.   By using the Binomial nomenclature method of plant identification, botanists, herbalist and naturalists can accurately identify this plant found in a certain geographical area.  And so Binomial nomenclature can be very useful in learning about native plants.  I learned this method and I also search for the ancient names and knowledge of the plants or the ethnobotanical knowledge of plants.  It all works, it all has meaning and it all is worth knowing.

Some plant specialists such as Alan Kapuler have come up with a connection between species that are based on “Kinship” and view all species as equal.  Kapuler says “Plants and other species do not need Kings”.2    There is no ruling species.  Kapuler believes strongly that we must place more value on the relationship between species as the core notion for optimizing diversity and subscribes to the Dahlgren Coevolutionary Layout.  That is, we should realize that a Giant Sequoia or a sunflower is just as important as a human life. We humans cannot continue to destroy whole groups of species and expect to live.  When we allow one species to become extinct, we are moving ever closer to our own extinction.

The Binomial nomenclature is used in “keying Plants”.  Learning to “key” a plant will allow you to identify any plant that you find.

Next time:  In part 3 of this series on plant identification I will teach you how to “key” plants

Until next time: See you in the deep woods.


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

2. Kapuler, Alan M (1997) System Tree and Kinship Gardening, Peace Seeds Resource Journal, Vol. 8. Peace Seeds publishing, Corvallis, Oregon

3. Kapuler, Alan M (1997) An Ark for the Plants, Construction, Planting, and Growing a Kinship Garden Using the Dahlgren Coevolutionary Layout, Peace Seeds Resource Journal, Vol. 8, Peace seeds Publishing, Corvallis, Oregon.

Online resources

More on Alan Kapuler

Mushroom’s Blog (Alan Kapuler) http://mushroomsblog.blogspot.com/2005/01/descriptions-from-dr-kapulers-peace.html

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