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Plant Identification – 10 Best Ways To Identify Plants

Plant identification is the skill of correctly naming a plant, shrub, or tree found in the field or at home.

A plant identifier knows the common name or even better the Latin name as well as the family name of a plant.

The best way to identify plants correctly is a combination between theory and practice.

Identifying plants can come in handy in a survival situation or improve the care of a specific plant at home or in the garden.

The more you read about plants and the more hands-on experience you gain, the better you will become at identifying plants.

Plant Identification

Plant Identification is a way of identifying plants based on their physical characteristics. Plants can be identified by their leaves, flowers, fruits, roots, seeds, or stems. Correctly identifying a plant means knowing either the common name or botanical name of a plant as well as its family, genus, and species. The first thing to do is to look at the leaves. Then have a look at the flowers if there are any. Last but not least fruits and seeds are a good way to correctly identify a plant.

Plant Identification done in the field
Plant Identification in the field (literally)

How to Identify Plants – 10 Best Ways Explained

1. What group does a plant belong to

Plants in the plant kingdom can be categorized into 8 major groups according to Sciences Learn Hub.

The groups to categorize plants into are:

  • Vascular plants
  • Non-vascular plants (eg. liverworts, mosses)
  • Seedless plants (eg. ferns)
  • Plants with seeds
  • Gymnosperms (eg. pine trees)
  • Angiosperms
  • Monocots (eg. palm trees)
  • Dicots (eg. vegetables)

In order to identify a plant ask yourself the question if a plant is vascular or not. Vascular plants have xylem and phloem that build the plant tissue.

Is a plant vascular or non-vascular?

Non-vascular plants are plants such as mosses or liverworts.

This distinction is a good way to start identifying and categorizing a plant.

In addition, a good way to distinguish plants is whether they produce seeds or spores.

An alternative way to generally group and distinguish plants according to Go Botany is to differentiate between:

  • Woody plants –  How to identify: Have thickened stems and often bark
  • Aquatic plants – How to identify: Grow either in or on the water
  • Orchids and similar plants – How to identify: Flowers are in multiples and leaves are parallel
  • Grass-like plants – How to identify: Narrow leaf blades and a tubular sheath around the stems
  • Ferns – How to identify: Ferns are reproducing using spores
  • Flowering, non-woody plants – How to identify: Multiple flowers and parallel-veined leaves
A good way to start to determine the general goup a plant belongs to
A good way to start to determine the general goup a plant belongs to

2. The Geographical Region

Take a note of the geographical region, the climate, and the environment you are in when identifying plants.

Some plants will only grow in specific locations and informing yourself about what kind of plants are growing in a specific geographical region or climate will give you a headstart at identifying plants.

Humid tropical forests are home to plants such as Philodendron and Monstera as well as tropical ferns. Dry, arid regions are home to cacti and succulents, and colder forests are often inhabited by evergreens.

Where a plant is found is important as it can be connected to possible plants that are growing in a specific region or certain conditions
Where a plant is found is important as it can be connected to possible plants that are growing in a specific region or certain conditions

3. Look at the Leaves

According to Oregon State University, leaves are often considered to be the main way to identify plants as they are easy to see and examine on most plants.

The leaves consist of two main parts. The leaf blade and the stalk or petiole.

The petiole is where the leaf is attached to.

The stalk also connects the leaf to the main stem.

Where the stalk or petiole meets the stem, there is a bud present.

Leaves are a great way to identify plants.

But it needs to be mentioned that multiple leaves on a single plant need to be examined as leaves can vary in terms of size, color, and texture even on a single plant.

Some reasons are that not every leaf gets the same amount of light.

How the leaves look and how they are arranged on the stem provide helpful clues.

Leaves blades can be narrow, wide, heart-shaped, scale-like, spear-shaped, or form a hand.

Then there is the arrangement of the leaves themselves on the stem.

Leaves can be alternating or they can be arranged in a parallel way.

There can also be multiple leaves emerging from one node.

Another general distinction for leaves is:

  • Simple leaf – has no stalk 
  • Compound leaf – has stalks and several leaflets can be attached to one single stalk in complex ways

The difference between leaves and leaflets is that leaflets do not have buds where the petioles are attached.

Leaves are one of the main ways to identify plants
Leaves are one of the main ways to identify plants

4. Bark, Trunk, and Stems

For trees, the trunk and its bark can be taken into consideration when identifying a tree.

Plants can have one or multiple trunks and where the branches and leaves begin offers valuable insights.

The stems can be:

  • tree-like
  • shrub-like
  • ascending
  • decumbent
  • procumbent
  • repent
  • or stoloniferous

When looking at the bark look at the color and the texture of the bark. Is the bark dark or light colored and how is the texture of the bark?

Tree bark
Tree bark

5. The Form of the Plant

The plant itself and its form can be used to identify plants. 

The study of the form of a plant and how it looks is called Morphology according to Botanicalartandartists.

There are 4 main structures to distinguish:

  • Comparing plants and their similarities
  • Looking at the reproductive and vegetative systems
  • Studying the growth habit of plants
  • Observing how plants mature and develop over time

Kew Royal Botanic Gardens states that a well-known classification is the system by Raunkiaer (1934) that was modified by Govaerts et al. (2000).

This classification model looks at how the buds are protected during unfavorable seasons for growth.

The classes are:

  • Epiphytes (epi.) – These are plants that grow on other plants
  • Hydrophytes (hydro.) – Plants that grow in water
  • Therophytes (ther.) – Are plants that are seeds in the unfavorable season and live through their entire life cycle in the favorable season
  • Geophytes (not abbreviated) – Survive the unfavorable seasons as rhizomes, bulbs, tubers, and root buds
  • Phanerophytes (phan.) – Woody plants such as trees and large shrubs
  • Nanophanerophytes (nanophan.) – Small shrubs
  • Hemicryptophytes (hemicr.) – Perennial and biennial herbs that have mostly herbacious stems
  • Herbaceous phanerophytes (herb. phan.) – Plants with herbaceous stems that survive multiple seasons eg. bananas
  • Chamaephytes (cham.) – Stems can either be persistent, woody, or herbaceous. These are mostly shrubs and herbs.
  • Helophytes (hel.) – Buds grow in watery soil. Aquatic herbs and marsh herbs. Leaves and flowers show during the favorable season.
Monstera adansonii is an example of an aroid plant as it climbs by growing on other plants in nature and will need a moss pole at home to florish
Monstera adansonii is an example of an aroid plant as it climbs by growing on other plants in nature and will need a moss pole at home to florish

6. Check the Flowers

Flowers are key identifiers for botanists as they are distinctive to certain species. The problem with flowers is that they are not present year-round in most cases.

So there is a seasonal restriction to that identification method.

In addition, some plants such as woody plants have very small flowers or they are not present and there might be better indicators to distinguish these.

However, whenever flowers are present, plant identification is way easier.

Some plants are dioecious, meaning that there are separate flowers on male and female plants.

Flowers are either single or they are grouped together as an inflorescence according to Florida State College of Jacksonville.

An example of plants with inflorescences are Aroids such as Monstera and Philodendron.

Flowering plants are either:

  • annuals -flower once and then die
  • biennials – die after one flowering but grow for 2 seasons
  • or perennials – flower for many seasons

There are many different flower or inflorescence types according to the Indiana Academy of Science.

Some types are:

  • Simple flowers
  • Compound flowers
  • Flower spikes
  • Flower heads
  • and many more
This is a blooming Aster. Whenever you have flowers, plant identification becomes much easier
This is a blooming Aster. Whenever you have flowers, plant identification becomes much easier

7. Identify Plants By Their Roots

Taxa identification through roots is possible, however, roots show less distinctive features compared to plant organs above the ground says Plant Soil.

There are two main ways to identify plants by their roots. Either you observe the roots in situ or you examine them in a laboratory.

For this, you would have to excavate the roots and take samples.

This is a destructive way of identifying plants as you will have a look at the roots on an atomical level but also examine them by anatomical indicators.

There are many different root types as roots can be:

  • tuberous
  • rhizomes
  • stoloniferous rhizomes
  • tap roots
  • corms
  • or fibrous roots according to vPlants.
Fibrous plant roots
Fibrous plant roots

8. Are there any Fruits?

Fruits are a great way to identify plants. Fruits are either fleshy or dry.

A pome or berry is a type of fleshy fruit whereas a legume or acorn is considered a dry fruit as an example.

There are 9 different types of fruits on plants according to Florida State College of Jacksonville:

  • Berry
  • Drupe 
  • Pome
  • Aggregate fruit
  • Legumes
  • Capsules
  • Grains
  • Nuts
  • Multiple fruits
Fruits on plants are great for identification purposes
Fruits on plants are great for identification purposes

9. DNA Tests

Neither the cheapest method nor the most readily available one, a DNA test is a surefire way to identify a plant variety.

It can also shed more light on the evolution of a plant as well as the relationship between different plants.

A DNA test sequences the DNA and looks for the parts that are unique to a specific plant species.

This common method is called DNA barcoding, where you look at unique sequences, called marker genes according to Delta Leaf.

Commonly used marker genes are matK and rbcL.

It is a great way to identify a plant species, even in the field but not necessarily a variety.

DNA tests can be conducted to identify plants
DNA tests can be conducted to identify plants

10. Plant Identification Apps

Plant identification apps are a cost-efficient and fast way to identify plants correctly using a smartphone in conjunction with an app that identifies plants based on pictures.

Pictures can either be taken live or uploaded and then photo recognition software is used to identify the correct plant according to MSU Extension.

Some well-known Plant Identification Apps are PlantNet, PlantSnap, PictureThis, and iNaturalist.

Plant Identification Apps
Plant Identification Apps

Frequently Asked Questions About Plant Identification

How do I identify my plant?

There are multiple ways to identify your plants. Common ways are using Google Image search, a web search as well as using plant identification apps for smartphones. Less common ways are using DNA barcoding to identify plants.

Can Google identify a plant from a picture?

Google can identify some plants by picture using image recognition.

Can I take a picture of a plant and have it identified?

You can take a picture to have a plant identified. There are both, manual services to identify plants by humans offered by institutions such as the University of Washington Botanical gardens and the Compton Herbarium plant identification service well as automated ways using apps and websites that use image recognition to identify plants.

Is there a free plant identifier?

A free plant identifier is offered by PlantNet on their website. In addition, many plant identification apps offer free credits to identify plants.

How can I identify a plant from a picture for free?

To identify a plant from a picture for free you can either use Google Lens or Visual Look Up on your iPhone.

What is the best free plant identifier app?

The best free plant identifier app is PlantoScan. It offers 5 free plant identifications per day and uses sophisticated AI and machine learning models to identify plants correctly.

How can I identify a plant from a picture?

To identify a plant from a picture make sure that the picture is sharp, the whole plant is visible, and that you focus on a single plant. Multiple plants in a picture as well as shadows and unsharp images will hinder the identification of plants from a picture.

How do I figure out what plant I have?

The easiest way to figure out what plant you have is to use a plant identification app for your smartphone or take a picture of your plant and then use Facebook or Discord groups to help you identify the plant that you have.

How do I take a picture and search it on Google?

Open the Google app on your Android or iOS phone
Go over and tap Discover
Look for Google Lens
Upload or take a picture for the search
Tap on the area that you want to use for the search
Look at the results at the bottom of the screen

How do I identify a plant in my yard?

To identify a plant in your yard it is best to take a picture with a smartphone or a camera and then upload it to a plant identification app, use Google Lens or Visual Look Up on your iPhone. Plant identification apps are generally preferred as they are more accurate in terms of plant identification since this is their main focus.

How do you identify an unknown plant?

There are multiple ways to identify an unknown plant. The most common way is to start by identifying the leaf, looking at the growth habit as well as looking at the flowers and fruits of a plant.

Can iPhone identify a picture?

iPhones can identify a picture using the Visual Look Up feature.

How do you Google a plant picture?

To Google a plant picture either use Google image search where you can upload a picture to conduct a search or you can use Google Lens on the Google App.

Is there an app to identify items by picture?

There are multiple apps to identify items by pictures such as the Google App with the Google Lens feature as well as identification apps for object, plant, and animal identification available for Android and iOS smartphones.

What’s the best free app for identifying plants?

The best free app for identifying plants is PlantoScan available for iOS.

How do I identify a plant by its leaf?

To identify a plant by its leaf look at multiple leaves instead of one leaf as leaves can vary on a plant. Look at how the leaves are arranged as plants either have simple leaves that have no stalk or compound. leaves.

Can the iPhone camera identify plants?

The iPhone camera can identify plants using the Visual Lookup feature from Apple.

Conclusion About Plant Identification

Plant Identification was reserved for botanists in the past. But as technology advances, plant identification is becoming more and more accessible through image recognition sofware. This software is available through plant identification apps and websites. In addition, DNA testing using methods such as DNA barcoding and appliances that allow plant identification directly in the field have both increased the identification accuracy and speed.

Author Bio

Daniel Iseli

Taking care of houseplants and gardening are my greatest passions. I am transforming my apartment into an urban jungle and am growing veggies in my indoor and outdoor garden year-round.