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How to identify a plant in 10 easy steps

Simple plant identification , everyone can do it!

We’ve all been there and done that. A plant that you know but just can’t remember its name. A familiar leaf or flower that you want to be able to reference by a title. Sometimes it’s on the tip of your tongue and other occasions you’ve discovered the name but then forgotten. Wise friends are always useful people to be with, when you are visiting gardens. But few plant names stick in the brain when they have been provided so effortlessly. So there’s no time like the present to take control of your plant word power!

green alkanet Pentaglottis sempervirens, plant with blue flowers The green alkanet, Pentaglottis sempervirens, is a plant that everyone seems to want to know, but few people can remember!

What’s that plant called?

  • Firstly, it’s all about LOOKING.

It’s the number one key to plant identification. People tend to glance but not bother to look. There’s no point in expecting to find a name when you only have a vague idea of what the plant looks like. “It’s got blue flowers” isn’t enough to go on! What about the rest of the plant? The leaves, the stems, the colour of the foliage, the arrangement of the growth, fruits, the size and the season are all good starting points.

  • Look firstly at the LEAVES.
palmate leaves of an acer tree What shape are the leaves? This Acer has palmate leaves like a hand with fingers

What shape are they? Did you know that there are at least 40 fairly common leaf shapes? Then there are the leaf margins to consider too. A silver birch tree has roughly diamond-shaped or triangular leaves with toothed-shaped margins. Iris and Phormium leaves are sword or strap-shaped, for example. You can also notice the ‘venation’, which basically means the leaf vein pattern, which varies hugely across species.

green leaf with smooth margin and prominent veins Leaves are more complex and interesting than you might imagine.
  • Next, notice the branching pattern. Are the leaves alternate, opposite, whirled around the stem, or basal (which means that there is no main stem at all, the leaves emerge from the base)? i.e. do the leaves come from the stem opposite each other or are they staggered along the stalk, for example? It’s not a random arrangement, this is one of the key id points. It’s known as phyllotaxis: the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem. Every plant has its own pattern.
Pyracantha plant showing an alternate leaf pattern plant id This Pyracantha clearly has an alternate leaf and stem pattern.

Salix, or willow, has alternate leaves whilst Cornus or dogwood has opposite leaves. Mint has opposite leaves that appear in pairs along the stem.

  • And now for the flowers. Of course, there’s the colour. But the number of petals is important too. Strawberry flowers have five petals, as do raspberries, blackberries and apple blossom. What is a flower, even? It’s just the seed-bearing vessel which contains the reproductive parts such as stamens and carpels. They are often surrounded by colourful petals, with the green sepals in the centre.
salix flowers and catkins on willow This Salix, or willow, with its alternate leaf pattern, has flowers that don't look much like traditional flowers

Some flowers aren’t colourful at all. This is because some rely on the wind or water for pollination, rather than insects. These flowers don’t product sticky nectar as the pollen needs to be light and airy. Many flowers on trees are inconspicuous and easily missed.

  • Don’t forget the seeds and fruit. It depends on the time of year, but berries, nuts and seeds can be highly individual and a really useful id tool.
walnuts on a Juglans regia walnut tree Walnuts are the fruit of Juglans regia, the walnut tree. They are a greatly helpful identification tool.
  • The thickness and strength of the stems is another important identification clue. Is the plant woody or soft? Herbaceous plant stems are generally pliable and these tend to die back to the ground each year. Shrubs and trees form woody stems which are stiff and they stay above ground during the winter, even though the leaves might fall.
Ginkgo biloba the maidenhair tree This Ginkgo biloba, with its alternate leaves arranged on a stem, is definitely a woody type of plant.
  • The next point to notice is WHERE the plant is growing. Habitat is important. Some plants need boggy, damp soil and others like bright, dry conditions. Look at the landscape. Is it growing in an open field or on the edge of woodland? On a damp riverbank or in arid, rocky terrain?
fern growing in moss and mushrooms or toadstalls Ferns generally love damp, shady places.
  • Then there’s the size and shape of the plant. Is it tiny, hugging the ground for protection, or it is a huge, towering giant? Does it form a neat mound or is it vertical in structure? Perhaps it’s sprawling and likes to cascade over and down a wall? Or it might be a climber than sticks itself to walls and fences.
sedum is a plant for a hot sunny site without much water This Sedum grows low to the ground as it's a water and energy-saving device. This is a plant that likes a sunny site and can survive in a drought.
  • After you have collected all the above information, it’s time to play detective. A good plant guide book can prove invaluable and the RHS has many different options available. The European Garden Flora publication from Cambridge University Press is probably the most comprehensive, and a book with an identification key such as The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose and Clare O’Reilly, is a good one. There’s a winter tree id guide by Bernd Schulz that is really useful too.
a tree twig in winter with a single leaf Winter twigs can be identified if you look for key points
  • You are probably more likely to be drawn to a phone app, and there are many useful ones. Two of the best-known are Plantsnap and Leafsnap. Just photograph the plant and the apps will try to identify them for you. iPflanzen is an app which attempts to identify plants from the information you feed in, rather than from a photo.

FlowerChecker, PlantNet, SmartPlant, What’s that flower? Green Fingers, Google Lens, Plantifier, PictureThis and Garden Compass are also relatively successful. Some apps involve submitting your photo to a real, live, human (gasp!), whilst others are automatically de-coded. If it’s the latter, be aware that the digital powers give it their best shot, but you can never be entirely sure that it’s correct.

Buddleja with opposite leaf pattern This Buddleja is a fine example of plant with an 'opposite' leaf pattern

Once you are on your quest to find out the correct plant names, it’s just a small step sideways that enables you to discover more about the plants themselves. It’s a fascinating journey that never ends. Enjoy!