“What is this flower?” You ask, pointing towards a bright pink bud that appeared in your neighbor’s garden. Or perhaps you’re looking at a small blue flower during a hike along a river. Learning plant identification is easier than ever, and it’s especially true with flowers.
Given the staggering variety of flowers in the world (over 400,000, in fact), it’s a daunting task to learn plant and flower identification. That figure doesn’t even include the subspecies, varieties, and breeds that you can find within many specialty garden stores.
Thanks to human influence and existing genetic diversity, the same species of flower may come in fifteen colors, three sizes, and six petal patterns! That’s a lot of confusion, just within a single species.
It can be really hard to learn plant identification, but we’re all a bit curious about the plants in our world. Here’s how to get started learning flower identification.
1. Start niche
It’s much easier to learn the flowering plants of your garden, the plants in your neighborhood, or the rose types of the world, than it is to tackle all 400,000 flowering plant species at once. First figure out a segment of the plant world that you are up for learning.
Personally, I learned the ten evergreen trees of Wisconsin first. This allowed me to practice with a smaller number of errors. While evergreens aren’t easy to identify, there are relatively few! Once I mastered those, I moved on to learning the leafy trees, bushes, shrubs, and flowers of my area. I actually never even attempted to learn to identify the grasses — it’s too hard for me!
You’ll be much less frustrated with learning how to identify plants and flowers if you start small. You’ll begin to pick up on the typical life cycle of plants, usual parts of the flower, and other commonalities if you don’t start too big.
2. Learn the hallmark characteristics
It takes practice to learn what you need to pay attention to in order to identify plants. If at first glance, you only notice that a flower is red and the leaves are green, you’ve got a long ways to go!
In general, learning to answer “what is this flower?” will be much easier if you learn and pay attention to the individual parts of the flower.
Look at flower shape, size, and color; petal number and arrangement; leaf arrangement, leaf shape, leaf color; plant height, general plant shape, and the surrounding environment. You’ll also want to pay attention to how shady the area is, what the soil is like, and how close the plant is to its neighbors.
If you’re a bit more advanced, you can make notes about the specific reproductive parts of the flower. Looks for parts of the stamen, do they surround the pistil? What do the anther and filament look like? What about the stigma and style of the pistil?
For those of you that want a bit more info on what to look for, we gave a brief overview of leaf shape, size, pattern, and vein patterns in our article on instant flower identification. Be sure to check that out if you haven’t already.
If you select a specific niche, there might be hallmarks that are specifically more useful to learn. For example, when I was learning to identify the pine trees of Wisconsin, I learned to pay close attention to needle length and needle arrangement. But when I was learning to identify the shrubs of Colorado, it was altitude that really mattered.
It might sound like a lot, but you’ll get good at absorbing all of this information in a snap. And you’ve always got PlantSnap to help!
3. Take notes and photos
That’s right. If you’re going to learn something, taking notes often helps! Taking notes on flower identification will help you remember all of those pesky details from above. You can start a little field journal with notes on the plants around you. This will help remind you to intentionally notice all of the little details. Did the flower attract pollinators? Were there bright colors? Was it in soil absorbing water?
While photos might not help you notice the little details, they let you easily look back on your explorations. If you’re not a big artist, photos are the only realistic way to document the plants that you see. You can refer to these photos later to cross-reference and double-check details.
4. Use a field guide or PlantSnap to check your work
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a botanist mentor, there’s a good chance that you’ll feel stuck with your growing flower and plant identification skills. PlantSnap is our app that you can download for free onto your Android phone, or for a few bucks on iOS. It uses an algorithm to analyze and identify flowers and plants from photos.
It’s not perfect — the algorithm is still learning and getting better every day! However, you can generally narrow down a plant identification using geographic details. It’s a great way to double-check your work as you grow in your plant identification skills.
5. See one, do one, teach one
After spending some time doing the “do it yourself” version of learning plant identification, you’re probably ready to get some real instruction. You might be able to find some local seminars or classes put on by educators or botanists. Many of these are free.
You can use meetup.com to find (or start your own) plant nerds group. From these groups, you can watch an expert with plant identification, practice on your own, then teach someone. If you don’t want to deal with meetups or classes, just take a friend out and show them what you’ve learned. The act of teaching and explaining will do wonders for solidifying your skills!
Now, it’s time to help teach others how to answer the question “what is this flower?”
What other tips and tricks did you find helpful while learning to identify plants and flowers?