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Tuesday - June 28, 2011

From: Oceanside, NY
Region: Northeast
Topic: Plant Identification
Title: Learning to identify native plants in backyard
Answered by: Nan Hampton


Please let me know how a layman like myself can identify native plants in my backyard. I don't know the plant names and don't know if they are dicots or any other technical terms (that some websites ask for) Are there any websites for me? I took out so many library books already and no luck. Thanks.


It can be frustrating at first trying to identify plants.  This is especially so if you are trying to identify plants that aren't in flower since most of the field guides to native plants group the plants by flower color.  You are going to be most successful if you watch for blooming plants to identify.  You may have to use both guidebooks and digital databases to be sure you have the right ID.  Since it's not really handy to carry around your laptop (although you can access our Native Plant Database via iPhones or other smartphones—In the Palm of Your Hand), here are some recommended paper plant identification guides for your area.  Any of these will easily fit into a backpack to carry along with you.

Wildflowers of New York in Color, by William K Chapman and others, is arranged by flower color with excellent photographs.  The text gives the flowering season, the size of the flowers, the size of the plant and the habitat it can be found in.

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, by Lawrence Newcomb, is arranged first by flower color, then by flower shape or type, and finally by leaf type.  It is a very good way to look for the identity of unknown plants.  It has excellent line drawings with some in color, but no photos.  This book may be out of print and you will have to look around to find a reasonably priced one.   I found my copy at a used book store.  

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers: Eastern Region arranges its flowers by color and shape.  It has excellent photographs.  The text gives a description of the plant including its size, habitat,  range, etc.

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide by Peter del Tredici was published in 2010.  It contains 222 commonly seen plants in the Northeast in urban areas.   It includes trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants.  Some are native plants and some are introduced plants.  Many (or most) of these are plants that most people call weeds.  It has a series of photos for each plant showing the plant as a whole, and its flowers, fruits, leaves, etc.  It is an excellent source for identifying common plants you may find in your backyard, vacant lots, ditches, etc.  This book combined with one of the wildflower field guides above would make an excellent set to take out in the field with you.

Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva and others is another book that focuses on commonly seen plants that are generally thought of as weeds.   Most of the plants in this book are not native, but there are natives in it as well.   The book doesn't indicate which ones are native and which are not, however.  It has shortcuts to narrowing the possibilities for identities.   For example, there are tables for "Weeds with thorns, spines, or sharp prickles", "Weeds with whorled, or seemingly whorled, leaves", etc.  There is also a vegetative key to the weeds that helps you narrow your search.

Your local library may have these books for you to look through to decide which you like the best before you decide to buy any of them.   If there is a good used book store in your area, check their collection to see if you can get a good used copy of the above books or other wildflower/plant field guides for New York, New England and the Northeast.

There are several databases that you might find useful.   The best one, I think, is our interactive Native Plant Database.  Let's say you have shrub in your yard that is less than 6 feet tall and has white flowers.  You can do a COMBINATION SEARCH, choosing 'New York' from the Select State or Province option, 'Shrub' from Habit (general appearance), 'White' from Bloom Characteristics-Color and '0-1 ft.', '1-3ft.' and '3-6 ft.' for Height.  This will give you a list of 33 plants that you can look through.  There are other characteristics that you can use to narrow your search, e.g., Bloom Time, Light Requirement, etc.   All of the plants in our database are plants native to North America.

Another database that should be useful to you is Connecticut Botanical Society's Gallery of Connecticut Wildflowers.  It contains both native and introduced plants and it designates their origin in the information for each plant. You can see lists of common and scientific names or you can browse by flower color.

Delaware Wildflowers covers flowers a little further away than Connecticut, but there should be a lot of overlap with plants in your area.  You can search by flower color, common or scientific name, family or bloom month.

Another interactive database, My, features "wildflowers from the trails of western Pennsylvania".  The database includes both native and introduced plants but they don't tell you which ones are native or which aren't.  They do, however, indicate which plants are invasive.

Really, the best way to learn how to identify plants is to go on a field trip with someone who is experienced in plant identification.  You might consider getting in touch with and/or joining the Long Island Botanical Society.  The Society has field trips to various areas led by experienced people who know their native plants.  Also, check with Nature Centers in your area to see if they native plant programs.

Best of luck learning the native plants in your area.  Be patient.  It can be very satisfying!


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National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers : Eastern Region (2001) J. W. Thieret; W. A. Niering; N. C. Olmstead

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (1989) Newcomb, L.

Weeds of the Northeast (1997) Uva, R.H., J.C. Neal & J. M. Ditomaso

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide (2010) Del Tredici, P.

Wildflowers of New York in Color (1998) Chapman, W.K.

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