A Great New Aid to Plant Identification


Plant identification has always been my nemesis.  I recognize old friends, but confront me with a new-comer, an unknown, and I am at a loss.  There are tools for identifying unfamiliar plants, of course.  These are botanical keys.  I was supposed to master these during my days as a horticultural student but never did. “Key” makes this tool sound simple and user-friendly; I find them tedious and difficult.  Essentially, a botanical key consists of a hierarchy of questions.  The key starts with a question about some prominent aspect of the plant’s anatomy and then, depending on your answer, that directs you to another question, whose answer directs you to another question, etc., until eventually you narrow the possibilities down to a single species.

Sounds easy but the questions are always posed in botanical terminology, which means endless trips to the glossary and a lot of head scratching.  And if you make an error in answering any of the questions – maybe you can’t figure out what a “ligule” actually is —  you are diverted into a wrong path, often with laughable results – that shrub simply can’t be an aquatic weed, even I know that.

Who woud guess that a "ligulate composite, with only strap-shaped flowers" means a dandelion
Who would guess that a “ligulate composite, with only strap-shaped flowers” means a dandelion?


The good news is that someone has done something about this.  The New England Wildflower Society has developed an interactive key called “Go Botany” that anyone can access.  “Go Botany” has the insight to address two levels of user knowledge.  There’s a “Simple ID Key” designed for the beginner and “Advanced ID Tools” for the more botanically fluent.  The simple key is just that, with videos detailing basic characteristics of different groups of plants, pop-up definitions of botanical terms, lots of descriptive photographs and even a geographical function, so that if I have found a plant in Connecticut, I won’t be directed to a species that grows only in Vermont.

The Simple ID Key includes 1,200 native and introduced New England plants; the Advanced ID Tools includes 3,000, plus native subspecies and varieties.   The most useful aspect of this is that with a smartphone, you can take this program with you into the field.

The North American Orchid Conservation Center has already created a “Go Orchids” based on the “Go Botany” concept.  Hopefully more regional plant societies will create counterparts for other regions of the country.

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at thomaschristophergardens.com) which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Cool — thanks for sharing this resource. I know I have certainly made some laughable mistakes in trying to identify plants. -Beth

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