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How to ID a Plant — The Long Way

This past Thursday was my first Master Gardener class on Plant ID and Botany.  I thought I’d put my new training to use and attempt to ID a mystery plant in my garden — using it’s leaves.  My mystery plant was a real beauty in the summer of 2008;  it was tall, leafy and somewhat tropical looking.  It even planted itself in the most perfect spot at the back of the garden. Then (sadly) this past summer it didn’t do much at all.  It just stayed small with a couple leaves to help me identify it,  which probably means it’s a biennial (greenery/roots first year & grows tall/flowers/seeds second year).

Here’s what I know about the plant:

  1. It seeded itself – I didn’t plant it
  2. It has large heart shaped leaves that alternate up the stem
  3. As it gets taller it forms leaflets at it’s top
  4. It grows over 6′
  5. It’s a biennial
  6. It has small purple thistle flowers that come out of the leaflet tips

Here are two poor pictures taken of the plant in my garden when it bloomed in 2008. The picture on the left is earlier in the summer and the picture on the right is later in the summer when it was blooming.

Early Summer 2008

Blooming Late Summer 2008

When using the online tools, none of the sites asked me the right questions needed to identify this unique plant.  I was getting frustrated.  So I went back to the name of a plant my friend Laura (@InterLeafer on Twitter) recommended this summer — Crambe.  The Crambe leaves were identical with my plant but Crambe also has small white flowers that didn’t match.  Plus, at the time I wasn’t aware that it was a biennial.

Thinking they could be in the same family, and since I wasn’t getting anywhere with the Plant ID sites,  I started looking at Crambe images using Google Image search.  To my surprise I accidentally found a thistle flower that looked similar to my plant’s (but a little larger). When I clicked on the image to find out about it, I found yet another thistle image that matched — my plant’s name was Burdock.  Can you believe my luck.

According to Wikipedia, Burdock is a group of biennial thistles in the genus Arctium, family Asteraceae — also known as a common weed.

Oh, great. My new beautiful biennial is really just a common weed. I suppose they’d consider Digitalis (Fox Gloves) a weed then too.  Anyway, it’s a great new addition to my garden and I’m happy to report there are 4-5 babies that’ll bloom this year.  Weed or not, this one is a keeper.  After all, its roots are commonly used for medicinal purposes and its flowers inspired the creation of Velcro.

Kardborre is the Swedish botany translation for Burdock. Picture source is unknown.

I guess the point of my story is that even though I wasn’t able to ID this plant using the leaf, I was able to ID the plant based on the flower (by accident).  I’m sure I’ll get better at this Plant ID business, until then, I’ll probably continue to ask Laura for help.  If you have pictures of plants in your garden/yard that I can test my skills on, send them my way. I need the practice.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh well…live and learn. You could always remind your classmates and instructor that burdock is known to the Japanese as gobo, where it’s considered a delicacy. And that the tap roots are very effective at breaking up hard clay soil. (It’s what I do when confronted with them alongside the pasture. )


    January 9, 2010
  2. Great job! That’s is an interesting plant. I like your persistence. Internet is a great source of information, for sure. Asking fellow blotanists is another good way to ID plants. I did that with Silene armeria. Jared from Pleasant Hill Rambles blog helped me.


    January 9, 2010
    • Thanks Tatyana. I do rely on the internet a little too much but it seems to work for me.


      January 16, 2010
  3. When I’m IDing a plant, the smell of it is frequently a clue. Maybe I’m just weird. What do you think?


    January 10, 2010
  4. Honey, you don’t want this plant in your garden:(


    January 14, 2010

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