Plants

How to Identify A Plant, Correctly and Confidently

How many times have you found yourself noticing a new plant that you don’t recognize? Do you wonder if it’s safe to touch, good to eat, or medicinal? Could the plant be native, or might it be invasive? Establishing an accurate ID is important when making any management decision, such as weeding, mowing, planting, and thinning. It’s even more important when harvesting! Plant identification apps are useful to some extent, but they are often incorrect. In this article, I share my multi-step process for identifying new plants with confidence.

I first realized the importance, and the difficulty, of plant identification in my early days on this land. It was my first summer of planting, and I remember working in the persimmon orchard, planting the first tiny saplings into a patch of Queen Anne’s Lace. Later, cooling down indoors, I scrolled through social media. I came across a plant identification request with a picture of (what I thought was) Queen Anne’s Lace. I commented with that suggested ID. Shortly after I posted my comment, someone else identified the plant in the photo as poison hemlock. At the time, I had heard of poison hemlock (the plant that famously killed Socrates) but I had no idea what it looked like or where it grew. I had grown up surrounded by Queen Anne’s Lace, so I thought I knew how to identify that plant. It was the plant with the snowflake-like flower heads! I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and a poisonous lookalike was in my blind spot. Another, similar plant that also has snowflake-like flower heads. Thank goodness no one was harmed by my ignorance. After that incident, I got serious about studying plant identification and safe foraging practices. Eight years later, I now know quite a lot more, but the most important thing I have learned is how much more there still is to learn. Humility, thoroughness, and crosschecking are key.

Step 1 : Go Ahead and Use The App

Plant ID apps are not always accurate, but I use them as a jumping off point. As an example, I recently noticed a new tree growing in my field. It was definitely not a tree I had planted, and it didn’t resemble any of the mature trees I’ve seen in the woods here. I thought it looked like a sumac, and I started to get excited because I have been planning to plant a little sumac patch in that very field. I used my phone to submit a picture to a plant identification app in hopes of confirming my sumac suspicion. The app did agree that the young tree was a kind of sumac, but to my great disappointment, it said poison sumac.

There are very few plants out there that aren’t safe to touch, but poison sumac is one of those plants. I wasn’t sure if I’d touched this one while admiring it or taking the photo. I felt a little concerned, a little cautious, and a little disappointed, but I held off on any strong emotions. I was not convinced that this ID was correct. Partly because I have very little trust in plant ID apps, but also because of the context. I’ve never seen poison sumac, but I’ve read that it prefers to grow in very wet locations. This tree wasn’t growing in my floodplain. The high ground here is moist, but it still seemed like a stretch to find poison sumac growing in that particular spot. I kept calm and moved on to step 2.

Step 2: Refine Your ID With Google

Plant ID apps are not very reliable, so I use them only as a reference point to begin my search. My next step was to query Google for poison sumac identification tips. I read several articles about poison sumac, I looked at pictures, and I studied the identification tips. It really seemed like this plant matched all the traits of poison sumac. I was almost convinced that the first ID was correct, but years of experience warned me to keep digging.

Step 3: Expert Eyes

When you are delving into a new plant species or genus, always be mindful of your own experience level. I have studied botany and foraging in some depth, but I have not spent much time looking at sumac species. I know that my eyes are not yet adjusted and trained to the finer nuances between sumac species yet. I needed expert eyes, so I posted this picture in the Plant Identification Facebook group. Group members quickly began to chime in with their opinions. The first commenter identified the plant as Staghorn Sumac, a species I had already ruled out based on the number of leaflets. The second comment weighed in with Winged Sumac, a species I had not considered. A third comment suggested Smooth Sumac. The Winged Sumac comment eventually generated 11 likes in a strong consensus.

Identification groups can be very helpful, and I always submit pictures to groups like Plant Identification or Indiana Native Plant Society when I’m working on a new ID. However, be careful not to act on the first comment you receive. Wait for a consensus to form. Even then, I do not take this identification as fact. I use the group opinion to inform my own plant identification process. I never accept someone else’s identification unquestioningly.

Step 4: Botanical Confirmation

I had a good feeling about the identification made by the Plant Identification Facebook group, and I was relieved that no one in the group suspected poison sumac. However, I am not satisfied until I understand why that identification was made, and until I can confidently agree and repeat that identification again in the future. I spent some time looking at Winged Sumac articles online, and it seemed to be just as good of a match as poison sumac. But after reading these additional articles, I still couldn’t tell the difference between Winged Sumac and Poison Sumac with my own eyes. I needed context and detail. What exact plant parts distinguish winged sumac from poison sumac?

For this level of detail, there is no substitute for a good field guide. I cracked open my cherished volume of “Shrubs and Woody Vines of Indiana and the Midwest” by Sally Weeks and Harmon P. Weeks, Jr. This book contains very detailed photographs and explanations for native shrub and vine species. Many other identification books will get you to the right Genus (i.e. some sort of sumac), but few references take the time to illuminate the nuances between staghorn sumac, fragrant sumac, winged sumac, etc. Thankfully, my favorite book contains a beautifully illustrated chapter on the sumac genus that answered all my questions.

The key difference turned out to be something very subtle. I never would have noticed the extra bits of leaf-like matter growing along parts of the stalks of compound leaves (called the rachis) in between the pairs of leaflets. See how there almost appears to be a skinny vertical mini-leaf connecting the pairs of horizontal leaflets, instead of a bald stem? I had to look at dozens of pictures to figure out what the “wings” were referring to, but now that I have seen it, I’m sure I’ll be able to recognize it again.

It’s very helpful to spend some time studying basic botany. Try to learn how to recognize the parts of a plant, how to tell the difference between a leaf and a leaflet, etc. Sometimes, distinguishing between species requires counting the stamens, leaflets, or petals. It might also require looking for tiny pores, fuzz, etc. It’s helpful to know that these things can exist and where to find them on a plant.

Step 5: Check Your Blind Spot

The final step that I always do to confirm my new plant ID is to google for the name of the plant plus “poisonous lookalike”. In this case, the search term would be “winged sumac poisonous lookalike”. This particular scenario is unusual because I actually started with the poisonous lookalike (poison sumac) and worked backwards to find a non-poisonous plant id. Still, it’s always worth cross-checking for unknown poisonous lookalike plants. After this final check, I can now confidently say that this plant is Winged Sumac! I placed a stake next to the plant to mark it safe from mowers, so it can grow up to become a lovely small tree.

Conclusion

Regardless of your expertise level, I hope some of these tips will help you make safer, more accurate, more confident plant identifications. An accurate plant ID is the foundation of good land management, safer foraging and gardening, and deeper plant knowledge. I recommend practicing your plant identification skills before you ever start foraging and ingesting any plants from the wild. It takes time to train your eye, sharpen your skills, and develop your confidence. Join some plant groups on social media, get yourself a good field guide and a free plant ID app and see where it takes you! Before you know it, you’ll be able to hike, forage, and enjoy nature with greater confidence, greater enjoyment, and greater understanding.

Note: This article discusses edible and medicinal wild plants. Always do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any plant that’s new to you. Identification mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.