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Thread: Beginner Question: How to identify plants without names?

  1. #1
    Creature of the Woods WildThing's Avatar
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    Question Beginner Question: How to identify plants without names?

    Hi all,

    Like most of us I'd bet, I have a whole bunch of books, bookmarks and other material that gives you a couple of photos, name and text blurb about many different plants.

    What I'm wondering though is, when you find a some plant you've never seen before, how do you actually track down what it's called? It's not like you can google an image (yet) and it seems incredibly slow to just leaf through (pardon the pun) every photo in every book you have hoping to spot it. I had one book that divided plants into categories based on things like size of mature leaves, number of leaves on a stalk etc. Most books don't seem quite so sane.

    I'm just wondering how everyone else goes about this? I live in a fabulous area for wild foods, but dandelions and wild leeks are getting old real fast, fiddleheads are passed and wild strawberries / raspberries have yet to kick in.

    Is there an online database anywhere that you can search by more than just name and location?


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    Senior Member wareagle69's Avatar
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    well there are several approaches, one way is get a book specifically for your area, let me break that down for ya, i live in ontario so i googled weeds of canada and also weeds of ontario, most folks look for wild edibles but you will have far more success with weeds, but sometimes it just takes paitence, i have marked a plant for study in spring and watched it thru the year, even two years to learn it, but then yes i have also pain stakingly gone page by page thru my books then when i think i found it i cross reference it with all my other books then also google said plant
    always be prepared-prepare all ways
    http://wareaglesurvival.blogspot.com

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    Senior Member oneraindog's Avatar
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    what WE69 said is very good advice (this coming from another beginner). i have been very well rewarded by looking through books that cover plants specific to my area. that in itself narrows the feild by a good margin.

    another nice resource is a book called
    Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
    by Thomas J. Elpel
    it is a slightly different approach to the plant identification which groups them by families using specific pattern recognition of the flowering parts of the plant. if the plant is not flowering the book i very limited. but a must have i must say.

    i have also been helped a lot by the people on this forum. if you are wondering about a plant take pics and post them in the forage section of this forum and see if anyone knows what you have.

    good luck

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    Administrator Rick's Avatar
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    Two words....dichotomous key....Literally, it means divided into two parts so you will always receive two options when using one for plants. For example:

    1a. Leaves are opposite or whirled .... 17
    1b. Leaves are alternate ..... 83

    Each set of questions is called a couplet. In this case, let's say the answer is 1b., leaves are alternate. You would then go to couplet 83, and step through that set of couplets then the next and so on until you identify the plant.

    That's one common approach.

    Another is classification is by habitat. Peterson guides uses that quite a bit. Still others may break it down into broad categories like Flowering Plants vs. Grasses vs. Woody Plants.

    If you look through your books, I'm sure one or more uses a system similar to one above. If not, you should be able to find one for your area at your local book store or library.

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    Rick is right on the keys. You will need flowers, leaves, whole stems with leaves and possibly fruiting bodies to do a final ID.

    The best books I've found for the northeastern US and Canada are Gleason's Plants in the Vicinity of New York and Briton&Brown's An Illustrated flora of the Northern United States and Canada
    Both are out of print but findable.
    Gleason's book is the best and easiest to use local key I've ever seen and covers all of New England as well as NY and parts of below-tundra eastern Canada. And it's hard cover and pocket-sized. I've taught many beginners with it in the past.
    Last edited by LowKey; 05-29-2009 at 08:40 PM.

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    Creature of the Woods WildThing's Avatar
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    Thanks for the suggestions everyone!

    @wareagle69 - I'm actually in Northern Ontario as well! Are there any specific references / people / classes you'd recommend for the area?

    @Rick - Sounds like exactly what I need. Unfortunately I've never come across a book like that other than a flower book based on a different country. Once again I'd love to hear any suggestions, but the phrase alone is enough to give me a great start on Google / Amazon. Thanks!
    Last edited by WildThing; 05-30-2009 at 01:06 AM.

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    Senior Member wareagle69's Avatar
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    are you near sudbury? viki mather from the northern life lives at kukigami lake/lodge, she and her husband allan put on a great wild edibles course, also allan bow beauchamp in espanola is the best when it comes to bush learning
    always be prepared-prepare all ways
    http://wareaglesurvival.blogspot.com

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