How do you ID plants not in flower?

shelley_r(7b NC)July 19, 2004

I'm trying to learn how to ID our local flora. Both of the field guides I have require flowering plants to use the keys. I know there is no substitute for experience and that takes time ... but, I'd love some suggestions on how to learn quickly. Also, those of you who were botany majors in college, how did they teach these skills? Are there any basic books that I should buy? Thanks.


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Rosa(4ish CO Rockie)

Sometimes with great difficulty and sometimes not at all until more positive features are present. The keys I use require both flowers and fruit for a proper ID with some species.
Experience tells me that in certain soils, plant communities, exposure and altitude that I will most probably find "x" plant and not "y" plant when given a choice.
What was most helpful in my botany clases was the sheer amount of plants we memorized along with the tips on distinctive characteristics for family, genus or species (especially with vegetative growth).
Most of my learning come from performing vegetation surveys and having to revisit, refind and re-key unknown plants.
Find a partner to help puzzle these out, be prepared to revisit the same location multiple times during the year and don't be afraid to enlist the aid of a botany instructor or local ecologist. Somtimes you can find plant walks given by either and local Native Plant Society in your area might be the best place to start.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2004 at 7:50AM
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Getting a good plant guide is important. I like Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. The line drawings of stems, foliage, and buds are much easier to learn to distinguish than those in photos. Try your local community college, they might offer Botany 101 courses or field excursions, those are great jump starts. Check out your local Nature Center for guided plant hikes.
Learn about plant families, what significant traits each family share, that will simplify the ID process a lot, simply by elimination.
Hope this will get you off to a good start!

    Bookmark   July 19, 2004 at 9:05AM
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froggy(z4/5 WI)

i use newcomb's wfg as an easy field guide. works for me.

but as to the main question...the answer is 'depends'.

some u just cant (grasses come to mind). ive gotten pretty good at the natives and can usually spot what they are by just the hairs and growth patterns. but if it doesnt fit my mould of plant and there is no flower, Rosa has the answer. u go back till u got a flower or a better picture of the plant.

lastly...even with a flower...u still may need to scope it out (again grasses come to mind :).

if u are really interested in plant id in the field, go spend a few days in the local herbarium. they may not be the most friendly ppl (and they prob mumble to themselves) but they are an increadable source of id to local flora. maybe they will even get u to start ur own collection.


    Bookmark   July 19, 2004 at 5:47PM
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Great question Shelley ...

The best activity for really learning about the plants in your area AND add to what science knows about the plants in your area is to start your own plant collection ... it is very tuff to ID flowering plants without flowers ... some botanist have waited years to ID certain rare plants !! ... that is to get a certain ID ... How about winter plant ID just from bare branches ?? ... starting your own collection is a great reference you will become an authority in your own area !!! .. and it's a whole lot of fun ...

Tip : scout the area under the plant for last years fruits .. flowers that have not openned can be dissected for valuable information.

"Learn about plant families, what significant traits each family share, that will simplify the ID process a lot, simply by elimination. "

I love that advice !!! I saw a flower recently posted in the weed section ... I new it was Asteraceae and a weed so looking it up in"Weeds Of The West" was a lot easier ... rather then the whole book I simply scanned Asteraceae ...

Good Day ...

    Bookmark   July 19, 2004 at 7:27PM
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shelley_r(7b NC)

Thanks for all the great ideas. It looks like I'm on the right path (have the field guides, member of wildflower society, etc.) and I'll just have to work harder. I was hoping for some kind of magic to help me jump to the next level. But it looks like I'll have to take your advice to memorize, dissect, and perform other rigorous activities. How do you get the ambition to study like that after you've been out of college for 25 years? I just bought the Botany Coloring Book. At least that should be fun.

Froggy, I've never thought about going to a herbarium, but I'll try to do that. I think we've got a great one here in NC.

Mohave_Kid, by "plant collection", did you mean my own little herbarium, or a living garden? I already plant all the native plants that I can find, afford, and have time to plant. I love it and that's really what got me interested in botany.

What book(s) do you all recommend for learning the plant families? I have Baumgardt's "How to Identify Flowering Plant Families", but Zomlefer's "Guide to Flowering Plant Families" gets rave reviews on Amazon. Anyone familiar with either of these books, or are there others you recommend instead?

    Bookmark   July 19, 2004 at 8:11PM
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Shelley ...

Your own herbariunm indeed ... very useful.

A must have inexpensive book that you will use till the covers fall off is :

"How To Identify Plants" by H.D. Harrington ... it is a illustrated glossary of botanical terms use to describe plants ... a must have if you want to use the more technical flora's ...

Good Day ...

    Bookmark   July 19, 2004 at 9:28PM
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Rosa(4ish CO Rockie)

Yes, Harrington for sure and didn't he do one specific for grasses as well?? Hmmm....have to check when I get to work tomorrow. Also one of my texts is also an illustrated guide to terminology- but not Harrington's. Best 20 bucks ever spent on a textbook!! I'll look that one up for you as well.
I have Weeds of the West but don't use it very much-it does come in handy for the pics of seedlings, tho.

"Tip : scout the area under the plant for last years fruits .. flowers that have not openned can be dissected for valuable information."
Too true, and I think of grasses especially in early spring. Often I will find nearby plants that are still holding seedheads from last year which confirm an ID for me.

It's worthwhile to visit the local college bookstore and scout the required texts for field botany classes. What are they using to teach the students? Most likely there will be general terminology and very local keys as well. Also check the "by our professors and alumni" section if they have one. You may find smaller publications dealing with just ferns, or lichens, or the Aster family.

Always, always carry a small notebook (back pocket size is fine). It may seem tedious but gets you in the habit of stopping to look around you and looking carefully at the plant(s) in question. Obsevations as simple as noting milky sap, a feature you will not see and may not remember after the plant has dried can be crucial information later.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2004 at 10:30PM
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A classic text that I believe is out of print is :

"Taxonamy Of Vascular Plants" by Lawrence ...

If you come accross it buy it !! It's written by the old timers and is very good ...

Rosa ...

I think you mean :

"How To Identify Grasses and Grasslike Plants" by Harrington.

another good one :

"Plant Identification Terminology" by James Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris.

Good Day ....

    Bookmark   July 20, 2004 at 7:40PM
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Hi Shelley,

As you saw from the above replies, there are no shortcuts.

To start right at the beginning, look at books. Over and over again. Page through your wildflower guides, looking at each plant picture, and put a name to it. Try to familiarize yourself with typical features. This way you will learn to recognize families and later genera. Then, when you come across a plant in the field (or a garden or nursery), you will say: 'wait a minute, I have seen something like that before!' At this stage refer back to the books.
Once you start recognizing plants at genus level, you are already well on your way.

To get from genus to species level, you will have to learn to look, touch and smell, to realize the sometimes very subtle differences. This will take a bit longer, and experience plays a big part here. Listen to people who are familiar with that plant, they might be able to point out differences you have not picked up from the books.

If you have a good key, you can also try it the other way round: take a piece of the plant you want to put a name to and work step by step through the key. However, this is often not an easy way.

Sorry I have to disagree with some of the above replies regarding herbarium specimens. Squashed flat they often have a different appearance than a live plant growing in the field. Colours and textures get lost, and you might find it very difficult to see a resemblance.
But I guess this is what separates the botanist from the hobbyist. ;-)
By all means, start your own collection - but a living one, in your garden! You will (and as I see, do already) get much joy out of it.

I can't give you any references to books as my Wildflower Guides certainly must differ a lot from yours, and it also depends on your field of interest. The more books you can look at, the better.
And: don't try to learn them all at once, take them one by one.

This might sound a bit like an 'Idiot's Guide to plant ID', but it worked for me. I have no botanical background and also started getting into plants long after I left college.
I know how you feel.


    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 4:42AM
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Rosa(4ish CO Rockie)

Thanks Mohave, you nailed both books!!
Wish I had duplicate sets-one for home and one for work, lol. But my (personal) references live at mostly at work.

Also, maddys says, "If you have a good key, you can also try it the other way round: take a piece of the plant you want to put a name to and work step by step through the key. However, this is often not an easy way. "
I often will find out an ID and then because I used a field guide or someone more experienced has given me the ID-I take the plant thru the key backwards to the genus and see where the key indicates certain features that I missed (the first few times).
Don't get discouraged. It will take some time to learn the families, and then the genera, and ID species level with any degree of confidance. Some days I'm really happy just to get a particular plant to genus before I enlist more experienced help.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 7:31AM
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shelley_r(7b NC)

You all have given me some great ideas and I'm getting more optimistic that I WILL learn. I'm also getting used to the idea that I'm going to have to dissect flowers (and fruits and so on). So, what tools do I need? What power and size magnifying glass? Do I need those tweezers? Will an exacto knife be OK for cutting? Anything else? And where can I get this stuff? Thanks again.


    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 8:02PM
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Rosa(4ish CO Rockie)

A simple 20 power (jewlers) loop will work. Mine is on a leather string so I can wear it.
I use cheap drug store tweezers-the really pointed kind-an exacto knife and a large sewing needle (the kind for rugs).

I have a collecting kit in the car at all times in an old picnic basket.
Keys and other ID books, a pair of socks, leather gloves, old sneakers, a pair of old tongs, small bypass pruners, and a good sturdy trowel. Actually I picked this up at the rock shop and it looks more like a bulb planter but is 1/4" one piece steel and has a beveled edge that can be sharpened. Also gallon plastic bagies, 1/2 gallon water, a couple of plastic wally world bags and one of those hot/cold insulated food bags (about $3) that I bought at wally world. They work great to keep plants in top shape in a hot car till I can get home and deal with them (I don't always carry a plant press with me in the car).

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 8:31PM
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Shelley ...

A NOTEBOOK is a must ... also a cheap plastic ruler in english and metric about 10 cm long ... a 10 x loupe also works well ... when you really get grooving a small dissecting scope ... this will give you more magnification and will free up your hands so you can dissect better.

Stay tuned ..

Good Day ...

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 9:11PM
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