People approach me and ask if I really collect all those wild plants and how I can identify them. Most think it’s difficult. Some even suggest it’s dangerous. It can be if you don’t learn your botany rules.
Simply trying to discern plants based on general outward appearance using traits such as size, shape and color will generate many wrong answers. Growing conditions can be as responsible for them as genetics. Don’t simply look at leaf size and shape. Notice whether they emerge from stems singly or in groups. That’s a genetic trait and won’t be changed by sun, shade, water, fertility, pH or any other environmental factor.
Also, you need to learn what constitutes a leaf. At the base of every leaf is a bud, so when you observe the base of what you think is a leaf and find no bud, you haven’t looked far enough. Pecans and hickories have what we call compound leaves. Each leaf contains 5 to 17 separate blades. These blades line up opposite each other, but the basal buds emerge singly in what is termed an alternate pattern. Still others can have more than two leaves emerge from a single place on the stem. We call that leaf orientation whorled.
Leaf edges are also important. They can be smooth (entire) or toothed (serrated). Leaves can also be lobed. Vein patterns are important too. Plants in the mint family also have square stems. Some leaves and stems also appear hairy. We call this condition pubescence.
Plants can be woody or herbaceous. Life cycles can be annual, biennial or perennial. I must admit it can be difficult to ascertain that without experience. Some plants keep their leaves throughout winter. Some lose them and we call that condition deciduous.
Flowers are also important. Some have male parts only. Others have female parts and still more have both parts in the same flower. We have to look closely. Using botanical keys can help greatly.
Once we have our botanical clues our experience groups plants based on these characteristics. Images can be helpful to confirm our identification and I sometimes use them. However, internet sources are frequently inaccurate. If I had a dollar for every species of plant or breed of animal I found misrepresented by Google, Bing or some other search engine I’d be a very rich man.
Another problem with looking at pictures is our tendency is to look at the whole plant and not its characteristics. Mums and marigolds can both have yellow flowers but marigold leaves are compound. Mums are lobed.
Maples and sweetgums both have leaves with star-shaped lobes. By the way, the name is sweetgum not sweet gum, despite what the program on your computer might tell you.
If this all sounds complicated maybe it is. I’ve spent a lifetime working with this stuff and there are far more plants I don’t know than ones I do. Foraging is fun but never be hesitant to get confirmation from someone with more experience. Even if you can identify hundreds of species in your locale, stick with the ones you can absolutely never misidentify.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.