My process for identifying plants

When I talk to people about identifying and then trying wild edibles, I tend to get several different types of responses.  One of the most common responses is a bit of disbelief that I would be putting myself into mortal danger by trying something that didn't come from the supermarket, another response is for them to tell me some random fact about an edible they know to see if I knew it was edible/medicinal  (Many times I don't know).  Another common response I get is where the person will tell me how they also love learning about wild edibles, and I will find out as I talk to them that they just read, never actually go out and try them.

For me, the process of finding, positively identifying, and then trying a wild edible can be a long process.  Many times it is a bit frustrating, but ultimately I love it.  As such, I wanted to document the process I go through for each of the edibles I try.  I don't have a strict process, but it tends to follow about the same thing each time.

 1. Reading - I have three books that I use constantly to try and identify the different things I come across.  I spend a lot of time going through these books, just flipping through, anything that catches my attention I will stop to read.  But normally I can flip through one of them in 30-45 minutes.  I make a practice of going through them as soon as I can after any nature walk I take, things tend to stand out in the book that I never noticed before.  Also, many times while out in the woods I will come across something I know I have seen before in a book but I don't recognize it, spending so much time in my books keeps the memories fresh.

2. Get Outside - Don't think that you need the perfect trip, I spend a lot of time in just junk woods between a baseball field and a livery.  Nature trails are fun, but if they force me to stay on-trail I tend to not like them as much.  Look around, I am in the city and I have tons of places I go.  Now here is the important part, take your digital camera, most likely your first few times out you won't pick a single thing, but you should be taking tons of pictures.  Any time I come across a plant that I feel is distinctive, I will take a few pictures.  Make sure to get the plant from several angles, make sure to get a picture of the vein pattern on a leaf, as well as the the leaf type (compound, simple, etc).  Note the area you are in, are you in the woods, edge of a field, beside a stream, under pine trees?  You don't need to know everything, but whatever you know will help to identify it later.

3. Get your pictures up on your computer - Go through each of them several times looking for what makes that plant distinctive.  As you are looking at them, think how you would recognize that plant somewhere else.  Once you have done that go back and flip through your books, you won't find all of the plants you took pictures of, but just one or two each time out and you are making great progress!

4. Get Outside Again - Once you have identified a plant from your pictures, learn everything you can from your books and also looking it up online.  Get a good feel for what it looks like from the descriptions, if it is edible, and which parts and what time of year.  Once you have all that info its time to go find that plant again, especially if you will be able to pick it to try it.  This time when you find the plant you should have much more knowledge on what you expect to find on the plant.  If you are harvesting this time out, just take a little bit, you should always just have a small amount the first time to make sure it agrees with your system.

5. Final confirmation - Are the veins on the leaves the same as in the picture?  Did you find the plant in the same area as the descriptions told you to look?  Is it the right time of year for it?  Does it smell like you expect from the descriptions?  Is there anything unique described in the description?

You must be 100% certain that you have the correct identification.  It may seem like overkill now, but time spent really learning the plant you are looking at is well spent.  Once you have gone through the process all the way to eating it, I like to say that you now "own" the plant.  A picture in a book doesn't have a smell, nor a taste.  You can't feel the texture from the book.  But once you have gone through this exercise, you will have the memories of all 5 of your senses to guide you the next time, and you will most likely recognize it on the spot!

Tips & Tricks

1. The pictures you find in your books are what I call "point in time" references.  Most books and sites online only show you a single picture of a plant.  Most likely you will find the plant in a different stage than what you see in your book.  Even if you have a picture for each of the seasons, many plants will change their look a little bit weekly (daily in the springtime).  When I think I have identified a plant, I will do a search on Google images for it, you get a much wider base of pictures to compare to.

2. Don't trust any one book or website.  There is a LOT of misinformation, just because its in a book or on a state website doesn't mean its correct, cross reference.  You will find this especially with commonly misidentified plants (Such as staghorn sumac that most people think of as poison sumac)

3. Flowers and fruit are your friends.  If you find a plant when it is currently flowering or has any type of fruit on it, your job just got easier, you can research the leaves and then see if the fruit matches the description or vise versa, also just knowing the color of the fruit or flower really narrows down your search.  Also when it flowers can narrow down your search.  The more info the better, and flowers and fruit are a tremendous help.  I will follow a specific plant for months without being 100% sure of what it is until the minute I see a flower, then I have a positive identification.

4. Keep going back to your pictures.  To go along with the "point in time" reference from above, once you have finally identified a plant, look back through your old pictures, you may have several pictures showing different stages of its cycle already, these are great for being able to recognize them much earlier in the season (Very important as many plants are only edible before they flower as they will get bitter or tough after they flower).