What does an elm look like?
December 28, 2012 10:38 PM   Subscribe

I can't identify trees, bushes, shrubs, or flowers. How can I learn to do so on sight?

I've been reading a lot of fiction lately. The writers keep mentioning elms, oaks, birches, and the like. I never know what to picture. Dictionary definitions don't help. Google is no replacement for real knowledge.

I know that some birches have white bark that peels off easily, but I never noticed their leaves. Do willows have catkins? I don't know. What distinguishes a cypress from a cedar? And so on.

It would be cool to have a clearer picture of these writers' worlds. It would also be cool to be able to look at a tree or a flower and name it. I would better appreciate the outdoors.

What books, web sites, and other reference materials could I use to learn this skill?
posted by Rustic Etruscan to Science & Nature (21 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The best way for me to learn to identify trees and plants was to get books from the library that showed various trees' and plants' pictures and the rules that were set up to help people identify them and their related species based on shared visual characteristics. This is before internet, of course. I'd walk around and collect specimens and then compare what I saw to what was pictured in the books, or I'd make drawings in the field if I couldn't collect. You now have the internet to help you so try this link and be sure to grab copies of the books they recommend at the bottom.
posted by Lynsey at 10:45 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know what state (province, region, etc.) you're in, but maybe the local Department of Conservation (or equivalent) has a Web site that will help. In my area, the Missouri Department of Conservation has a fantastic Web site that describes all the local species of plants and animals.

They also have a magazine that's free for state residents and offer events for various outdoor activities that often include nature walks with local guides who can teach what you want to learn. At least locally, these are either free or offered at extremely nominal cost and typically led by people who are passionate about passing on this knowledge.
posted by tomwheeler at 11:03 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you can, you might enjoy taking an actual Botany course at a local university. I haven't done botany (yet) but I've done herpetology and entomology and am now a fair hand at identifying local insects, reptiles, and amphibians. The common species, at least. Organismal biology courses usually involve quite a lot of identification.
posted by Scientist at 11:17 PM on December 28, 2012

Obviously you can just do a google image search for 'oak tree' and get more pictures than you'll know what to do with. There are also paper & digital field guides (Audubon Society has been doing this for a long time), but they're designed to help you identify a tree you're seeing by the shape and arrangement of its leaves, growth habits, fruit, bark, etc; they won't give you a sense of what it's like to actually be in a forest of oaks. The scale, smells, quality of light, rustle of wind in the leaves are too important to the experience. So, get out into the woods! Bring a field guide or tree ID app, take some photos, bring home some leaves and twigs, and do a little research.
posted by jon1270 at 11:20 PM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Many small parks with wooded areas have walking tours with trees/flowers that are marked with identifying plates. Check out Botanical parks, arboretums, city parks, even community gardens.
posted by greta simone at 11:24 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my area, there are frequently weekend or summer classes offered by various nature centers or parks, and through stringing together a bunch of those I went from someone who had zero knowledge of local flowers and trees to someone who knows at least the common names of most of our native plants on sight (not a huge accomplishment; I live in a cold-weather area). They were hands-on with very little classroom time and a lot of time spent wandering outside with someone knowledgeable in a small group. There's also a really friendly native plant society in the area, and some people I know got a start with that.

Does something similar exist near you? Or do you have a friend who enthusiastically knows this stuff? The best thing for me was a few weekend days spent poking someone in the ribs and asking, "What's that? How do you know?" constantly, and those fairly informal outside classes provided me the opportunity.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:28 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

See if a community college near you offers a plant ID class- I took one and it really helps- it's exactly what you're describing.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:50 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could go to a nursery that sells ornamental trees and wander around looking at the labels. I worked out how to tell fruit trees apart by going to nurseries several times over a few months when I was planting a new fruit tree garden, and as soon as I picked up what the basic distinguishing features were it became much easier to tell between other types of trees and plants as well.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 11:56 PM on December 28, 2012

I know my trees and whatnot pretty well, but I still fell in love with this book on sight: Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. If you want to be able to name the trees and weeds you pass every day on your way to work, this is your book! You'll be going "Oh, that's what that's called!" on every page.

It helps to pay attention to the attributes that the same tree has in different seasons -- for example, a beech tree has neon-green, translucent leaves in the spring, curled light-brown leaves most of the way through the winter (if you've ever seen a small tree in the forest that was inconguously holding onto its dead leaves after everyone else had dropped theirs, it was probably a beech) and very smooth light-gray bark all the time. This chart may be handy in the coming months. Also, the "lime trees" that British writers are always going on about are actually lindens, not any kind of citrus. (This confused me for years.)
posted by ostro at 1:29 AM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Memrise has a course called "Trees of Britain" which might be a good place to start for some basics.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:03 AM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

My two go-to nature field guide brands are Audubon and Peterson (links to examples, they aren't their only offerings). Though because there are so many species, and the guides tend to cover such broad regions, it would be a good idea to find someone pretty knowledgeable to go on nature walks with, too. When I lived in Atlanta, I learned a TON about which trees grew there by volunteering with an urban reforestation group, mulching and watering trees mostly, sometimes planting too.

You can find tons of simpler guides to get you started, just to know the broad differences between elms and maples and whatnot. Or maybe this? I've never used it, but it looks pretty cool.
posted by solotoro at 2:06 AM on December 29, 2012

Some more terms that might help you are "dendrology" (aka tree identification) and "dichotomous key" (that's the sort of pick-the-category-matching-your-sample quiz that helps you narrow down what you've got).
posted by anaelith at 3:33 AM on December 29, 2012

In middle school, we were assigned to go out and collect leaves, in wax paper envelopes, identify them and create a book with their scientific names and common names.

You could do that. I'd start with learning your local trees and bushes.

I've started learning the weeds in my neighborhood. Learning which ones I could eat and which ones have medicinal properties has kept me interested.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:08 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Check out if your area has a Master Gardeners program or any similar type of classes for community members through extension - I'm sure will vary by state/area, but these can be very geared toward this sort of thing.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:32 AM on December 29, 2012

I've found google to be pretty useful for this. The images in particular should help you get started, and I don't think that knowledge is less "real" than what you would learn from a book - especially if it's a good website with lots of info.

You can look up what trees are common in your area, examine the images online, then go out into the wild and look around for those trees. You'll notice some trees you don't recognize - you can take photos and try to figure them out on your own or post them in a forum for tree / plant identification.
posted by bunderful at 9:10 AM on December 29, 2012

I took a horticulture class in college which set aside one day a week to wander the campus with the professor identifying trees and shrubs. Even though it was far afield from my major, it was the class that gave me the most lifelong personal satisfaction of any I took.

Do you have an arboreteum nearby? They may run classes you would find useful, or at least provide many different specimens for you to look at.
posted by apparently at 9:48 AM on December 29, 2012

If you live in California, but are reading about the UK, going to the local park or whatever isn't really helpful. There's a number of visual dictionaries that are very useful, I think.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:40 AM on December 29, 2012

Response by poster: In case it makes answering this question easier, I live in Massachusetts, a half-hour from Boston.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:44 AM on December 29, 2012

I got this cool book at the Harvard Coop for about $5. It's a dichotomous key for identifying trees, so using it feels like a Choose Your Own Adventure! I just go outside and try to identify the trees I see. Fun times.
posted by threeants at 11:56 AM on December 29, 2012

The Name That Plant forum is worth creating an account (free).
posted by gray17 at 12:31 PM on December 29, 2012

If you want tree silhouettes, the Audubon guide mentioned above is pretty good ("Eastern Trees" covers New England). That should be fine for general identification purposes. It has the silhouettes, photographs of the leaves and bark, and a general description. Most time when trees are mentioned it's general anyway; the authors usually aren't tree experts, either, and just mention elm or oak rather than the specific species, of which there may be hundreds.
But if it's an Eastern U.S. book that mentions elm, it's almost certainly the American elm, which has a classic "umbrella" or "vase-like"form.
posted by Red Loop at 5:57 PM on January 1, 2013

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