If you are a beginner to plant identification, please read Getting Started with Plant Identification and Plant Family Patterns for the Neo-Botanist before reading this post. If you already know how to identify plants by their families, proceed as usual.
What is a Genus?
Scientific names of plants usually consist of two parts: (1) a generic name, the genus, and (2) a specific name, the species. For example, the scientific name for Spikenard is Aralia racemosa. Aralia is the genus of the plant; racemosa is the species. The genus is always capitalized; the species is never capitalized. If you want to refer to all the species in a genus, you write the genus name followed by “spp.” For example, you would refer to all the species in the Aralia genus as “Aralia spp.”
Genera (plural for genus) are one organizational level below plant families, but above the level of species. Families, genera, and species are all the lowest parts of the a whole scientific classification system, known as a taxonomy.
1. Ignore the Species
After learning the relevant plant families for your area, your next step is to identify the plant by its genus. I suggest ignoring the species name most of the time, for a couple of reasons. First, many plants, like violets (Viola spp.) and Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) are divided into species based on minute differences, sometimes invisible to the field botanist.
Second, medicinal value and edibility often apply to all the species of a genus at varying levels. (For example, so far as we know, all species of violets are edible.) This is not always the case. But because it is so often true, learning the genus and its properties first simplifies your learning. Otherwise, you would have to learn that each species of a genus is edible when you could have just learned that the whole genus is edible — and some genera contain hundreds of species!
2. Keep the Edible Plant Guide on the Shelf
You shouldn’t try to learn only edible plants. Edible plants have many look-alikes that can be differentiated only by a person familiar with common plant patterns and characteristics. Your job right now, as a beginner, is to learn those patterns and characteristics. Then, when you are ready to focus on edible plants, you will have the botanical knowledge necessary to identify edible wild foods safely and efficiently.
Instead of an edible plant guide, get several guides particular to your region. For example, because I currently live in the Southern Appalachians, I have the following books on my shelf:
- Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont
- A Field Guide to the Trees and Shrubs of the Southern Appalachians
- Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains
- Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and the Southern Appalachians
3. Learn Plant Communities
You might be wondering where to start if you can’t start by focusing on edible and medicinal plants. I suggest doing the same thing you did with families: focus on your region. But get a little more specific than just the state or even portion of the state. Instead, learn relevant plant communities for your area. A plant community “is a collection or association of plant species within a designated geographical unit, which forms a relatively uniform patch, distinguishable from neighboring patches of different vegetation types.”
For example, in the part of the Appalachians where I live, there are three relevant plant communities: grassy balds, heath balds, and cove forests. Grassy balds mostly contain plants from the grass, sedge, and rush families. Heath balds mostly contain evergreen shrubs from the heath family. And cove forests have a wide array of plants. They stand out among plant communities as unusually biodiverse. Nevertheless, any book that divides plants by plant communities will show you all the most common species that appear. In cove forests, common plants include rhododendron, mountain laurel, jack-in-the-pulpit, carolina silverbell, and doghobble.
Here’s how I use this method. I take daily walks in the forest. Each time, I visit plants that have stood out to me, observing their growth cycles and sometimes noting animal disturbances. I also look around for younger or older versions of the plant. Sometimes I dig up ubiquitous plants by the roots so I can observe their root system. The walks are 90% observation. When I sit with a plant, I do not immediately try to find its name in a field guide. I try to learn its smell, its patterns, and its botanical characteristics. I also say hello to any plants I already know, just in case they do something surprising. Then, every few days I look through images in a book that divides plants by relevant plant communities. If I find a plant that looks familiar, I write down its common and scientific names, and I compare the plant to field guide descriptions during the next day’s walk. This should be a sufficient method to get you started.
In addition to learning plant communities, learn what plants associate with specific animals or geographical characteristics of the land you are learning from. If there is a stream, learn what kinds of plants like streams. If there are ravens, learn what plants ravens like.
4. Emphasize Wildflowers
Although I would like to identify plants even if they lack a wildflower, wildflower guides are the easiest way to identify a plant. The best wildflower guide for my region is Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. I always take it with me on my daily walks.
5. Learn Botanical Terminology
After you learn enough genera in your area, it will be time to move on to the species level. For this, you will need to do a little preparation, because you will be using dichotomous keys. A dichotomous key is “a key used to identify a plant or animal in which each stage presents descriptions of two distinguishing characters, with a direction to another stage in the key, until the species is identified.” These usually employ botanical terminology like raceme, axil, radial, or pinnate. You will need to be familiar with these terms to start using keys effectively. I suggest buying a copy of The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms and making flashcards of all the terms you encounter most often.
You will need to use keys and this precise botanical terminology because the differences between species can be subtle. Often you will not be able to use a given key until you’ve tried a handful of times in the field. And as I stated in the first post in this series, your learning process will always be improved by asking more experienced botanists to confirm your identifications.