Identifying Plants in Your Landscape

By knoxred (knoxred) on March 12, 2010

When you need help identifying a plant, your best course of action is to find somebody with plant knowledge, and put enough clues in front of them so that an identity may be confirmed. Success is measured by how well you ask the right questions, provide accurate information, and consult the right sources.

As we can tell from our Name that Plant game, trying to call in to the MG hotline or your local nursery for an identification is actually much more difficult than simply making a visit in person. It’s worth making the trip.  Visual clues are critical to a successful ID, so take in a sample of the plant if you can. A leaf or bloom is a good start. A branch showing how the foliage is attached is even better. Can’t bring in a sample? A picture really is worth a thousand words. If you absolutely can’t go in person, an e-mail with pictures attached is a good 2nd choice.

Be ready to answer as many questions about your plant as you can from the following list. Knowing these common descriptive terms for plants will be of great use to you in the plant selection phase. Get used to answering questions like how big/small/long/wide, etc. with actual measurements in feet and inches. “Big” means different things to different people. “Dwarf” is also misleading. If you’re looking for a small shrub, a dwarf Burford holly is not going to meet your needs. 

Plant ID Questionnaire

General / Structure

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  • What general type of plant is it? (Tree, shrub, grass, perennial, annual, bulb, houseplant*)

  • How tall and wide is the plant now?

  • Did you (or a previous owner) plant it or is it naturally occurring? Where is it growing? (your yard, woods, field)  

  • What conditions is it in? (amount of sun and moisture) 

  • Is it woody or herbaceous?

  • If it dies back to the ground in winter, is there basal foliage?

  • What texture is the bark? (juvenile and mature forms may differ)

  • What color is the bark? Does it change color seasonally?

  • What color are the stems?

  • What form does it naturally take? (upright, weeping, spreading, prostrate, columnar, vining)

 *If you know it is treated as a “houseplant” in your zone. There is no such thing in nature as a houseplant!

Foliage

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  • Is it evergreen?

  • How is the foliage attached to the stems? (alternate, opposite, whorled)

  • Does it have simple or compound leaves?

  • What size are the leaves?

  • What color are the leaves? Do they change seasonally?

  • What shape(s) are the leaves?

  • Describe the leaf margins.

  • Describe the vein patterns.

  • Does the foliage have a smell when crushed?

Blooms

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  • When does it bloom?

  • How long does it bloom?

  • What time of day do the blooms open?

  • What shape are the blooms? Are they in clusters?

  • How big are the blooms? Are they showy or insignificant?

  • Where are the blooms? (all along the branches, or only at the ends?)

  • What color(s) are the blooms?

  • Describe the fragrance. If there isn’t one, that’s also a clue.

Fruit

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  • Are there fruits?

  • What type & shape are the fruits?

  • What size are the fruits?

  • What color are the fruits?

  • When does the fruit appear?

  • What forms of wildlife are feeding on the fruit?


Now that you have collected this information, who do you ask for help? There are several good places you can go to find knowledgeable plant people:

Local County Agricultural Extension Office. Your local Ag. Extension office is there specifically to assist residents of your county, whether the issue is livestock, crops, or ornamental plants. Master Gardener volunteer programs were designed to educate interested gardeners, who would in turn provide free help to your county Ag. Extension Agent. A visit to your Ag. Extension office can provide you not only with your plant ID, but tons of free brochures, frost charts, lists of areas nurseries and some personal gardening contacts.

Local Nursery. Local nurseries can be a valuable resource in plant identification and later, plant selection. You may walk in and spot another plant just like the one you’re trying to identify – and it will already be labeled! The staff may be able to identify your plant, provide you growing advice, and sell you the products you need all in one fell swoop. Some caveats… respect the time of nursery personnel. Tying up a sales person on a busy spring weekend and then making your plant purchases at the local Walmart is not good form. Your best plan is to visit on a weekday, with your questionnaire completed, and stick to the business at hand. This is not the time to ramble on about Aunt Edna and her phlebitis.

Other Gardeners. Internet plant ID forums are another good choice, providing you choose the right forums. If you don’t already have a picture of your plant, try to get one. The first response you will likely get is a request for a photo (or more photos). You are welcome to post requests for ID in the Plant Identification forum. Another site with knowledgeable gardeners is the Plant Identification Cubit . If you already know the general type of plant you have (say, a rose), then more specific forums like Mystery Rose Identification can be great resources.

Once you have a plant ID, google it. Not only will you be able to double check the ID, you will be able to make decisions about whether the plant is going to work for you, where to place it in your landscape, and how to best care for it. You will also be able to track down another one, if you need a replacement or an exact match for the one you have.

While identifying plants in your landscape can be time-consuming, remember that with each ID you will be one step further along in creating a landscape that meets your particular needs.

Related articles:
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"The most serious gardening I do would seem very strange to an onlooker, for it involves hours of walking round in circles,
apparently doing nothing. What I'm doing is forcing myself to evaluate certain areas....
Only during these quiet moments does a good idea suddenly occur."
~ Helen Dillon, Irish garden writer