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In the Garden

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Friend or Foe? Easy Plant Identification Tools

7/17/2013 10:18:00 AM

Tags: plant identification, invasive plants, gardening, Wisconsin, Jennifer Flaten

Last year we moved into our house and I can’t tell you how excited I was—after living in rental properties for more than 10 years I finally had a piece of land where I could garden to my heart’s content. Our house is on a regular city lot, but to me it was a huge, wide-open space that I could fill with plants.

Unfortunately, we moved in during the worst drought our area had seen in 10+ years. Everything, and I mean everything, in our yard with the exception of the evergreen shrubs was dry, brown and shriveled. I figured I would just wait until next spring to begin gardening. (Okay, I didn‘t wait; I did manage to get a few plants and bulbs in the ground.)

Fast forward to this past spring: we experienced the coldest, wettest spring on record. Thanks to the weather I didn’t get nearly as much done garden-wise as I wanted to, but the one thing I did do was play plant detective or, as I like to call it, “Friend or Foe.”

Before we bought the house, it was a rental, so there wasn’t too much done plant-wise in the yard. Although, whoever lived here before us really liked columbine because I found a bunch of columbine plants in random locations around the yard. I also discovered a cache of hostas when we removed an overgrown shrub. Both the columbine and the hostas were easy to figure out. I‘d tried growing columbine at one of our other houses with no success. Others, like the Virginia bluebells that popped up by our deck I had to do a little detective work in order to figure out what they were.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a seasoned gardener as a friend or family member, just how do you figure out what that mysterious plant is? 

If you have some idea of what the plant might be you could use reference books. I know my library has a huge selection of gardening books and magazines. What is nice about the library is they will usually have books on specific plants for your region. In the case of the bluebells, I thumbed through my stack of library books (Perennials for Midwest Gardeners) until I found a similar plant.

Another tool is the Internet. Again, it works best if you have an idea what the plant might be. You just enter the plant’s name in the search engine and in seconds, you can view hundreds of photos of the plant for comparison. Keep in mind some photos could be mislabeled. Try to stick to reliable gardening sites. With smart phones, you can even take the photos out into the garden for a real side-by-side comparison.

What do you do if you have no idea what the plant could be? Try talking to a local garden center or a master gardener. I know our local master gardeners frequently have booths at the local farmers markets. You could also email a picture to the local extension office.

The extension office is a great resource, especially for invasive species. I found a cute plant in our yard and I was going to let it stay, but as it so happens a few days after discovering it, I was out for a walk and spotted what looked like that same plant running rampant in another house’s front yard.

Suddenly, I wondered if my cute little plant was an invasive bully. I Googled “Wisconsin invasive plants” and discovered the extension office’s interactive website. I entered a description of the plant from the drop down menu and found out that my plant was bittersweet nightshade vine, which is considered invasive in Wisconsin-. So out of the garden with him!

If you have any other tips or tricks for plant identification let me know.


Jennifer FlatenJennifer happily gardens away in Wisconsin where she lives with her family. When not gardening Jennifer is a freelance writer and jewelry designer. Browse her jewelry at Etsy or visit her website Dragon and Butterfly Design.



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