What Plant is This?

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I was looking through my camera downloads for blog-topic inspiration when I noticed that I have many lovely photos of pretty flowers, but no idea what they are. Some were taken in exotic (at least compared to Colorado) locales, others at our local gardens. It’s past time I get around to identifying these plants. And if I have a need to identify my mystery plants, maybe you do too. Here is how I go about putting names to pretty plant faces.

@Prince Rupert BC 16June2006 LAH 102If you encountered your mystery plant in person, you already know where it was growing, and what time of year. If it’s blooming, even better. I’m unlikely to encounter a tropical bush at 7,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. (However, if you’re visiting a botanical garden, realize that they sometimes go to extraordinary efforts to grow an out-of-place specimen.)

My next step requires a bit of botany, but nothing too technical. I try to decide in general what kind of plant I’m dealing with. Is it in the sunflower family? Perhaps it’s one of the myriad salvias, part of the mint family. Or it’s a grass, or a conifer. There are a lot of plant families, not to mention genera, and I’m not at all familiar with most of them, but if it turns out to be one I do know, I’ve made great progress in narrowing things down. I’ll be writing about the most common kinds of plants throughout 2019.

Tradescantia_DBG-CO_LAH_8954r

For example, this plant is clearly in the genus Tradescantia, along with spiderworts and inch plants (aka wandering Jew). Compare the flowers with this Virginia Spiderwort:

tradescantia_spiderwort_corralbluffsco_lah_0398-1

However, I haven’t been able to find the species in any search. None of the Tradescantia images show those mottled leaves.

If you’re not familiar with plant families, you could try looking them up in a book. I have numerous field guides sitting on my office shelves, and they are well-thumbed. Even if I can’t ID the specific flower or cultivar, they are often enough to get me pointed in the right direction.

Caesalpinia gilliesii_Desert Bird-of-paradise_DBG-CO_LAH_8660

Another approach involves pinpointing any unique characteristics that will help with a web search. Telling Google that I’m looking for a plant with yellow flowers isn’t going to get me very far. There are a lot of plants with yellow flowers. But if I add “red anthers” to my search, well, there aren’t many yellow flowers with  red anthers! It took one search to learn that the unusual flower shown here is a Desert Bird-of-paradise. (This large shrub is only hardy to zone 8, yet I saw it at the Denver Botanic Gardens, growing in zone 5. You just can’t trust a botanic garden!)

Note the quotation marks around “red anther.” That’s because I didn’t want to search for a red and yellow flower. When you put things in quotes, Google treats them as a single unit. I had to scroll down to the fourth row of photos before I had a match. First came a lot of pictures of Hypericum flowers, which also have yellow petals and red anthers. If I have too many of the wrong answer, I could put a minus sign in front of the word I don’t’ want, in this case Hypericum. Then Google omits it from the search.

I admit to using a botanical term (one you should have learned in high school biology)—anther. It helps to use widely-used terms to get specific. On the other hand, getting too technical or too detailed doesn’t work. Remember, you can only search for terms that the person who posted the article or image used in their post.

But let’s say that all your Googling efforts yield only frustration. There are other resources. Some websites offer keys or other identification tools. You click on the choices that best match your plant, and they give you a list of possibilities. Be aware that many of these are regional. The first three I checked out were for Pennsylvania, New England, and Great Britain. Also, some are for cultivated plants while others focus on wildflowers.

Two of my favorite wildflower sites for Colorado are Wildflowers of Colorado and American Southwest: Wildflowers of Colorado. Use a web search to find similar tools for your part of the world.

In addition to these automated sites, there are groups of real, live experts who generously offer to help with ID. On Facebook, try typing “Plant ID” into the search bar at the top of the page, then choose one that appeals to you. You post a photo, and members try to identify it. Of course, their ID is only as good as your photo—try to make sure it’s sharp, and that it shows as many characteristics as possible. Those include flowers, fruit, seed pods, leaves, leaf arrangement, size, etc. Also, mention where and what time of year you took the photo.

Finally, there are apps you can add to your phone. The most widely used is probably PlantSnap. They claim 94% accuracy. I have yet to try it, but that’s about to change—it’s downloading as I type. If I like it, I’ll devote an entire post at some point in the future.

I prefer to try to identify something on my own before asking for help. That’s how I learn for next time. But sometimes, even the most persistent search leaves me clueless. You may have noticed the photos on this page. Except for the Desert Bird-of-Paradise, I have no idea what any of these plants are. Can you help?


Plant photos, from top:

  • Unidentified yellow flowers: photo taken in May, in Puerto Rico.
  • Pink flowers taken in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, in June.
  • Pale yellow flowers taken at Denver Botanic Gardens in March.
  • Mystery Tradescantia, photo taken at Denver Botanic Gardens in October.
  • Virginia Spiderwort, as mentioned.
  • Desert Bird-of-paradise, taken at Denver Botanic Gardens in October.
  • Red flower photo taken in October at Denver Botanic Gardens.
  • Purple flower photo also taken in October at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
  • Red flowers taken in Louisiana in June.

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