Wonderful Wildcrafting: Building a Skillset for Successful Plant Identification

Despite the fact that it’s the coldest May I can remember in quite some time, I’m getting pretty excited about all the lovely plants I see popping up every time it does warm up enough for me to go outside. I’m also getting so many questions from students and colleagues concerning what they have been seeing as well! Honestly, it’s nice to interact with folks about something other than coronavirus and conspiracy theories, and just like Spring, the promise of the plants is that the world keeps turning, and wouldn’t it be grand to rejoin it, even if just for a brisk walk in your yard.

With that goal in mind, in this month’s post, I want to go over some basic fundamentals for plant ID in the wild. There’s a whole skill set involved in the wonderful world of wildcrafting and we are going to delve into it. A big part of this knowledge is botany, and I know that can be intimidating to some folks. Once you realize that botany is just a fancy was of saying “I know what I’m looking at when I see a set of leaves”, it’s not so scary. And being able to tell one set of leaves apart from another is extremely empowering when it’s just you and the woods.

This overview will be a bit of a teaser, admittedly. We are hosting a great class this month (Zoom, of course) where we will look at these skills in greater depth and go over lots of examples and work on identifying sample plants together. If you’re reading this after our class has happened on 5/20/20, don’t worry! We have been archiving our video meetings and you can find them under the “videos” tab.

Ok let’s get right into it!

Plant Identification Mantra I: Botany is Not the Enemy; it’s your Salvation.

Everyone has mixed feelings about the “science-y” part of plant identification – actually, there’s a lot of opinions out there about the “science-y” part of herbalism as a whole. And while technically none of these opinions are wrong, I will say this: the ability to tell the difference between one plant and another, especially when they look quite similar, ultimately rests on one’s ability to identify qualities about that plant that make it or the family it belongs to unique. That’s botany. Not so scary.

Here’s some examples of how concepts in botany can help you when you’re out for a walk. Let’s say you are on a mission for some dandelion blossoms, because you love dandelion wine and you also heard that dandelion blossoms make a killer massage oil (they do, its excellent). Dandelions are everywhere, right? Easy to identify? If you come across a field of this plant when you are out on your quest, would you know it wasn’t dandelion?

Not a dandelion. This is actually Hawkweed, and while definitely not as prevalent as dandelion, its’ still around and tends to grow in similar places, like fields and meadows. The giveaway in this photo (there are several differences between these two plants, but I want to focus just on what we see here) is the leaves: they are entire, while the leaves of dandelion are deeply toothed.

Toothed means that the edges of the leaf have grooves – sometimes fine teeth, sometimes deep ones. Here’s an example of fine teeth versus deep teeth:

The first plant is lemon balm, a well-known member of the mint family. You can see the shallow indentations or “teeth” in the leaves. The second is, of course, dandelion. It’s no wonder the French translation of this plants name is “lion teeth”: the indentations in the leaf cut deep, almost all the way to the primary vein of the leaf, but not quite: it’s still a continuous leaf with no separate compartments or leaflets.

These differences may seem trivial, but as most of us plant hunters know, there are a lot of things out there that look a heck of a lot like dandelion leaf. It’s an easy plant to confuse with other plants. Knowing that dandelion has deeply toothed leaves is just one of its many special, unique botanical aspects that will help you make a positive identification.

Plant Identification Mantra 2: Know Your Terrain

Aside from botanical properties, there are other ways to determine whether or not “what you have there” is a certain plant. Most of these ways involve creating an awareness of your location in time and place, and then using your knowledge about plant growth patterns to determine whether or not it makes sensethat a given plant is, indeed, what you have there.

What do we mean by this? A few things, but the first one we’ll talk about is building an awareness of your environment. We need to ask ourselves the crucial questions:

Does it make sense for the plant I think this is to be growing here?

What sorts of plants tend to grow in the terrain I am currently in and how can that help me ID an unknown plant?

A lot of this is common sense, but it’s not common sense until you know some basic facts about where things tend to grow. To come back to our dandelion example, while dandelion grows almost everywhere, it is less likely to be in bloom when you come across it in the deep woods. If you are taking a walk in the woods and you see a patch of yellow flowers, even if the leaves and blossoms look right to you, I would think twice before assuming its dandelion.

This is trout lily, a lovely native spring wildflower commonly found in bloom around the same time as dandelion, but blooms in the deep woods. I don’t think anyone would ever get trout lily and dandelion confused, but just one example among many to keep in mind.

Certain plants, unlike dandelion, only grow in certain areas. For example, you won’t find goldenseal growing in a field or by a roadside. You will almost always find mullein growing in disturbed, almost rocky, soil. Some plants, like wild ginger, like to “have their feet wet”.

What does all this mean? If you’re on the prowl for mullein, don’t go looking in someone’s backyard or in the woods. And if you happen to see a fuzzy-leafed plant in someone’s yard, its probably not mullein, unless they live in the country and their “yard” is actually a wide open field or waste area.

While this stuff does not have much to do with botany at all, it’s still a skillset. It’s the ability to look around you and perceive where you are standing, and then take that perception and apply it to what you know about where plants like to grow.

That being said, you do have to have some knowledge about where plants like to grow. That takes time, and there are books and classes out there that can help (hint hint).

Plant Identification Mantra 3: Family Matters

Mints share very similar characteristics. The leaves of the rose family tend to always look a certain way. Composite family flower heads are hard to mistake for any other family’s, um, heads. If you can get to know what makes a family a family, it will significantly add to your ability to identify plants correctly in the wild. Let’s look close up at one of my very favorite examples of what I mean.

(spoiler alert: you do need botany for this. Learn your botany!)

Stinging nettles are not part of the mint family. Some of you might say to yourselves, “well of course they aren’t, they aren’t aromatic!”, but there are plenty of mints that aren’t, such as motherwort and skullcap. To complicate matters more, dead nettle IS part of the mint family. And stinging nettle, the ones we are after for medicine, do share many, many botanical characteristics with the mints. For example:

1. They have a square stem

2. They have opposite leaves

3. They have toothed leaves

In fact, here’s stinging nettle now, next to the same photo of lemon balm we looked at earlier:

Now yes, you could see if the plant stings you and if it does, its most likely nettle. But what if it doesn’t? Nettle does not necessarily sting every time and maybe you don’t want to make yourself a human experiment for the sake of plant identification. How would you know the difference between the two?

Well, you have to know your families.