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:
- It seeded itself – I didn’t plant it
- It has large heart shaped leaves that alternate up the stem
- As it gets taller it forms leaflets at it’s top
- It grows over 6′
- It’s a biennial
- 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.
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.