Plant Identification 101

There is no greater happiness in the known world better than coming home with a plant that you have absolutely no idea as to it’s identity, turning to the front of your 1042 page “Plants of Pennsylvania,” starting with first step on the technical key and 90 seconds later worked your way directly to the correct species. This happens to me about once out of every 32.7 plants I try to identify.


The rest of the attempts end up as an epic struggle with my Flora of Pennsylvania where I spend hours pecking my way through the key ending up on incorrect species after incorrect species. Often times, I can’t even figure out the correct family. At those times I usually refer to my botany book as “Road Block.” Which comes from the fact that the authors are Ann Rhoads and Timothy Block.

If you have never looked at a botanical tome you might think they were of another language and culture altogether. And for the most part, you would be right. These works usually start off with a dichotomous technical key to the families. If you are unfamiliar with a dichotomous key, they are a simple concept where you are presented with two options. You decided which option fits your situation and then move on to the next option. In business and management they are referred to as “decision trees.”

The first two lines of Road Block is this;

A. non-green epiphytes or parasites, or plants lacking normally expanded leaves and/or stems

A. green, not obviously parasites, stems and leaves present


Seems easy enough, right? Well after than all hell usually breaks loose. Sometimes the route to the right plant can have scores of options. One wrong turn and you are sent off to the incorrect part of the plant kingdom. Further, the specialized botanical language alone is enough to make a normal person not so normal. In fact, I have another book to assist me for that called Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary, because words like cleistogamous are not part of my every day lexicon. Cleistogamous, by the way, means a flower that never opens. Who knew?

To make matters more difficult, you must have a dissecting microscope to see many of the plant parts that are used in the keys. In this regard, I am lucky in that I happen to have one of those in the basement. Still with all this highly specialized and precise terminology and advanced optical technology, I can still often come up completely empty.

Not long ago, I came across a shrub at the Stroud Preserve that was unfamiliar to me. It had “wings” on the stems and green flowers. Both of these characteristics are fairly uncommon and conspicuous features and I figured that this plant would fall into the category of species that I quickly identify. I broke off a stem to bring back home to work through the key.

I was wrong. I spent hours trying to figure out to which stupid species this stupid plant belonged. In fact, I felt pretty good in calling it a “stupid shrub” because of the fact that “shrub” was really the only thing about the plant that I knew was a certainty.

I was obviously over looking something as I keyed it out. I checked every fork in the key to make sure that I wasn’t over looking something to no avail. I was clearly overlooking something. Frustrated, I walked away from it and moved on to something else. Later in the evening when I was sitting at my computer I figured why don’t I give Google a try. I typed in “shrub green flowers.” In less than a second, there were scores of images of winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus).

I still chose to refer to it as stupid shrub.