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Identification Methods

Getting Started with Plant Identification

One of the first questions you might have as a new Backyard Observer is how to identify the plants in your yard. Understanding the basics of identification will make it easier to use field guides or to verify plant ID app results.

Many people can easily recognize dandelions.


When you step outside and see a dandelion, how do you know it's a dandelion? Perhaps you know a dandelion has bright yellow flowers with lots of petals. Or that they grow in open places like your lawn. Or maybe it's your childhood memories of blowing the globe of fluffy seeds and making wishes as they float away.

You know what a dandelion is because of trait recognition. Traits are unique qualities. Most species have a unique combination of traits that are different from all other species. If you memorize the combination of traits, you can identify a species.

Memorization is the way that most people first learn how to identify a plant. But perhaps you're not sure what the difference is between a dandelion and a buttercup. Or a dandelion and a daffodil. After all, there's a lot of yellow flowers out there!

Dichotomous Key

A simplified dichotomous key.

This is where a dichotomous key comes in handy. Dichotomous means comparing two things. When you use a dichotomous key, you'll closely examine a plant and compare features to help you identify the species. The key acts as a decision tree, letting you decide which path to take based on the traits you observe.

This method does require you to have some knowledge of the parts of a plant as well as scientific terms. It's much easier to memorize these terms if you practice identifying plants!

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide is a great place to get started. Check you local library, book exchange, used book reseller, or visit the publisher's website at to get a copy.

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