Plant Identification Skills

Question: How do I identify plants in my neighborhood and on hikes? Where do I start?

Good question! You don’t have to be a trained botanist, but you will need to look closely at some basic characteristics of the plants to identify them. You definitely need to identify a specific type of plant to care for it properly!

There are a number of ways to solve the plant ID puzzle. The first is to use a plant identification guidebook, also known as an analytical key. It categorizes by visible plant features.

Typically, you choose from categories that describe characteristics of the whole plant (deciduous or evergreen, growing habit or form), flowers (color, shape, petals, bloom time), leaves (color, shape, arrangement, size), fruit (color, type), stem (color), etc.

Look at the introduction and glossary of the guidebook for details on using the key and identifying plant features. As you work through the categories in the key, you will narrow down the search and eventually, you will be able to identify the plant. If you get stuck, go back and work through the process again. It sounds daunting, but patience and perseverance will be rewarded!

There are also websites and smart phone apps that help you identify plants. Let’s look at an example using the excellent North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox provided by North Carolina State Extension.

BerndH; CC BY-SA 3.0

I was curious about a pretty plant I saw nestled among some trees near my house. Since it comes up each year and does not have woody stems, I guessed it was a herbaceous (non-woody) perennial plant. Looking closer I saw that it had 3-6 inch wide scalloped-edged, heart-shaped green leaves with yellow flowers and a mounding shape. I chose from the corresponding criteria in the plant finder: plant form as mounding, flower color as yellow, leaf color as green, and leaf shape as cordate or heart-shaped and found five plants that fit the description. From the photos, it was easy to see that my plant was a Cowslip, also known as Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris).

H. Zell; CC BY-SA 3.0

Eureka! In this case, you only need to choose four characteristics to narrow the field of choices and identify the plant. You can pick different characteristics to get to the answer depending on what you observe. The description also provides details on how to keep your plant thriving, An added bonus: the Cowslip is deer resistant! Unlike most of the guidebooks, you don’t need to have seen the blooms or fruit to complete the key when using an online plant ID key. Just use what you can observe.

Another option is to call or email the VCE Horticultural Help Desk, where Extension Master Gardeners will assist you in plant identification. Call 434-872-4583 or send an email to You will need to provide information about the plant’s characteristics (size, shape, growth habit, sun or shade loving, site location and condition, type of flowers, leaves, fruit, etc.) and preferably with photos of its key characteristics. Feel free to ask us how you can provide a physical plant sample if that is preferred.

That’s it! Now you are well on your way to plant ID success. Good luck!


Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Laurence Newcomb; Little, Brown & Company, 1977.

“Dendrology Factsheets”, Department of Forest Resources & Environmental Conservation, Virginia Tech.

“Weed Identification”, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, Virginia Tech.