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March 24, 2011

Importance of positive identification of wild plants

Filed under: Outdoors,Wild Edibles — Tags: — Marcus @ 2:00 am

Last weekend I spent several hours out in the local parks walking around in the woods and field edges looking for wild edibles.  One of the first plants I found I thought was a Cutleaf Toothwart, it is an early spring plant that grows in the woods in fairly dense groups, I saw a picture online that looked just like what I was looking at out in the woods.  However with closer inspection, I found it definitely not in the Toothwart family.  Take a look at the following two pictures:

Actual Toothwort Plant (Picture from the internet)

Miss Identified Toothwort Plant (Picture I took)

Looking at the picture of the Toothwort plant I see that it is growing in a dense group, in the forest.  Also from the description I see that it is one of the first things to come up in the spring.  They are both about the same height, and they both have jagged edges.  However, when I looked up Toothwart in the Peterson Field Guide for Edible Wild Plants, there was two things that they make mention of that I didn’t see in the plant that I had found:

  1. Leaves are supposed to be in groups of three (A Trifoliolate leaf pattern), on the photo on the right, the leaves seem to be in groupings, but they are definitely not groups of three, on closer inspection I see that they are opposite (2 leaves/node).
  2. In the guide I kept seeing references to the plant being peppery, or a horseradish substitute.  I cut into the roots of the plant and crushed the leaves to smell them, I should have noticed a peppery smell, but it didn’t have any hint of that.

In the end, I went through all three of my plant identification books and I didn’t find out what my mystery plant was, that most likely points to it not being edible (though not necessarily poisonous).  I am going to stop back by in a couple weeks as I noticed it looks like it is going to flower, and I will be able to tell much more by its flowers as to what it is.

When I am working to first identify a plant, I spend quite a bit of time doing it, before I will ever try to eat it, I normally will have looked it up online in multiple places, checked my books, etc.  I want to know beyond a reasonable doubt that the plant I am looking at is truly what I think it is.  It can be difficult because the plant you are looking at out in the woods rarely ever looks like the pictures in the books, and plants look so very different at their different stages in a season.  Once I have gone through the exercise of identifying a plant, when I run across it again, I typically know almost instantly what it is, and I have confidence in my identification.  When I have learned to identify a plant, I typically know its shape, its habitat, its smell, texture, etc.

This is one of the reasons I am such an advocate of actually getting out into the woods, fields, etc and actually identifying plants, I talk to people all the time that say they are interested in wild edibles, and I find out the most they have done is read about them.  Reading is the first 10%, it is an important step, but you will never be able to go out and really know what is edible until you go plant by plant and truly identify and try it in the wild.

I have mentioned a couple times my books that I have, these are invaluable when trying to identify a plant, I like to cross reference with several things, also knowing the basic leaf patterns and shapes is critical to make sure you are comparing apples to apples (the leaf patterns was one of the red flags that spawned this article).  For a quick guide to the different leaf patterns take a look at this pdf: (http://www.fairchildgarden.org/uploads/docs/Education/teacher%20training/green%20machines/Leaf%20Classification.pdf).  Also below are the books I currently have that I use for reference:

  1. Petersons Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants – This has great descriptions, and is the gold standard on plant identification books, however almost all the plants are just pen sketches, they are very helpful, but, the plant in the outdoors doesn’t tend to be done in pen.
  2. Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Bradford Angier – Not as many plants as the Petersons Field Guide, but it has color sketches (still not photo’s), and it has much more information about how to use the actual plants.
  3. Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons – Not so much an identification book, but more of a cookbook I would say, however the descriptions will help you with telling if the plant you have smells correct or has the correct texture, etc.

To close with, here is a much larger picture of the plant I miss identified, see if you can pick out how the leaves are different.  Also, when I am out in the woods, I find it helpful to take lots of pictures from different angles so that when I get back home I can use them to try and identify the plant.

Update 4/3/2011:

I haven’t stopped trying to figure out what this plant is, and I finally figured it out, this is a Pipsissewa plant, it is actually a medicinal herb that the Native Americans used to cure a great many illnesses.  To read more about it, I found a really great article on the internet with a lot of information about it: http://www.squidoo.com/pipsissewa


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1 Comment »

  1. Interesting…

    The mis identified plant almost appears to be a member of the Rhododendron family… Slightly woody stalk, waxy leaves, etc. I find this interesting because members of this family can create nectar that is poisonous… Which can lead to poisonous honey if enough of it is around. 20+ plants in an apiary can cause problems.

    Comment by Paul — March 24, 2011 @ 5:18 am

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