Getting Started with Plant Identification: Report from a Beginner

For the past several weeks I’ve been immersing myself in botany and plant and mushroom identification. Here are some tips I’ve learned so far. Read more updates on my uncivilization project.

When trying to learn how to identify plants, a common first move is to buy an edible plant identification guide (with a key). I did as much when I was still at university — bought the highly-regarded Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants — but I could never find enough time to learn how to use it. Now that I finally have had the time, my first piece of advice is:

Do not start with an edible plant reference book.

There are two problems with this strategy. First, it restricts your learning to edible plants. This wasn’t a good idea for me. First I needed to learn plant patterns, get re-acquainted with their reproductive systems, get re-acquainted with the general classes of plants, learn what kinds of plants grow in the geographical region I was learning in, etc. Crucially, I needed to get used to the plant identification process, but most of the plants around me weren’t edible, so restricting my focus was slowing my learning progress.

The second problem with the strategy: learning from reference books is generally a bad idea. It might be possible if you already have a lot of basic knowledge. When I was younger I did as much with my mom’s psychology books. But for beginners, it’s a lot like trying to learn Spanish by starting with a Spanish-English dictionary.

That second tidbit I figured out pretty quickly, so I started searching for better starting points. I knew that somewhere out there was a good introduction to plant identification, one that allowed me to “clump” different plants together and identify them by large classes, not just specific species.

Because of an article I once published in The Wildernist, I found Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel — and it’s what I would now recommend to absolutely any beginner to plant identification. Elpel’s strategy is to teach beginners how to identify plant families, instead of species. He begins with eight of the simplest: the mustard, mint, parsley, pea, lily, mallow, and aster families.

For example, when covering flowers in the mustard family, Elpel gives these key words: four petals and six stamens (four tall and two short). This is essentially all you need to remember. The petals are typically arranged like an “X” or “H,” which you can remember because one of the scientific names for the mustard family, Cruciferae, means “cross-bearing.” And all plants in the mustard family are edible. You can see why the “patterns method” is so powerful.

This method works because during the descriptive phase of botanical science, plants were grouped together by their common characteristics. The current phase of botanical science, heavily reliant on genetics and modern evolutionary theory, has shuffled the classifications around a little bit, making the patterns method a little difficult sometimes. This is a problem for biological sciences in general, but as I learned while an employee for a botanical garden and herbarium, it is a near-constant headache for botanists. In other words: Yes, it will be annoying, but everyone else who likes plants is in the same boat.

Elpel’s book is widely available and often very cheap, because it is used as a university textbook. He also provides a lot of the content online for free.

For mushrooms, a friend recommended Mushrooming Without Fear by Alexander Schwab. “It has rules,” the friend said. And the rules really do come in handy. For example, rule one is, “Never, never take a mushroom with gills.” Schwab explains:

This is the reason why the field mushroom is not in this guide. The field mushroom belongs to the group of mushrooms with gills, and especially when young, the field mushroom can be confused with some deadly species. The safe method therefore asks you to ignore all mushrooms with gills because it is within the gilled group that all the seriously poisonous and deadly mushrooms are found.

As my friend put it, if you eat mushrooms without gills, “you may get sick, but you won’t die.” Note that this friend’s partner complained about the no-gills rule. She noted that some of the best local mushrooms had gills. This is true. So the rules included in this book are only meant for beginners.

After learning the above concepts, I learned to identify a handful of species by getting in-person advice. I learned how to identify yarrow, St. John’s Wort, juniper, and lemon balm from a few local gardening friends; I learned how to identify wild garlic, white clover, common wood sorrel, and rosemary from university friends; etc. This brings me to my next piece of advice:

You’ll learn the fastest through in-person tutoring. 

Samuel Thayer, in The Forager’s Harvest, explains the psychology behind plant identification skills:

When you become familiar with a plant your mind begins to develop a file of information and characteristics associated with it. This file, or set of associations, is what I call a search image. People do not recognize familiar things, whether a plant species or one of their parents, by specific distinguishing characteristics. Instead, we recognize them with their respective search images, which contain far more details about their physical aspect than we could ever consciously remember. The search image contains more nuances of texture, shape, position, color, smell, and other such things than could possibly be conveyed verbally.

You can’t develop a search image from most available identification guides. You need to get dirty in the field. In fact, Thayer’s book is the only one I know with enough information for the forager (as opposed to the plant enthusiast or professional botanist). He writes:

For plant identification, most foraging books pass the responsibility on to “reliable field guides.” As an identification tool, this book is superior to any field guide (for the small number of plants that it contains) because it is designed with the forager in mind. Multiple photos of each plant clearly show all parts and stages of growth that are needed for positive identification. Unlike other field guides, this book also shows the edible parts of each plant in the proper stage and condition for harvest.

This is absolutely necessary. For example, when I first identified and researched wild garlic, I realized that it looks pretty different at different times of the year. If I hadn’t looked up what wild garlic shoots look like, for a while I would have been restricted to identifying mature wild garlic. And even now, I recognize that my knowledge will not be complete until I see wild garlic shoots in person.

A final piece of advice:

Learn scientific names.

Common names are names like “carrot” or “sorrel”; scientific names use binomial nomenclature, for example, Oxalis stricta or Allium vineale. The first part of the binomial name is the genus and is always capitalized; the second part is the species and is never capitalized.

Right now my brain still files plants under their common names, and that may always be true. But a few experiences have demonstrated to me that learning the scientific name is necessary for both safety and positive identification.

For example, when I first noticed wild garlic (Allium vineale), it was because a friend had told me it was wild onion. After second-checking, I learned that the common names “wild onion” and “wild garlic” are often used interchangeably for two species: Allium vineale (wild garlic proper) and Allium canadense (wild onion proper). The species are extremely similar, and have the same culinary use, so it’s not only common to mix them up, but harmless. But I realized that many other cases would not be harmless. Thus, as a beginner, I encourage other beginners to pay attention to scientific names.

1 Comment

  • Nova Green says:

    Started reading this and immediately wondered why you had not opted to begin with Tom Elpel’s book, only to find that you eventually arrived at that conclusion…

    Keep up the great work!

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