It is always a challenge to initially identify which plants can be eaten or used medicinally. It is especially hard when they are seedlings and you are wondering whether you should pull or not pull from your seed bed. I eat the weeds and wild craft plants for medicinal purposes so I am always wondering when looking at a young plant “who are you?”. The best reference for identifying plants is yourself. Nothing like personal experience. I often will mark the position of plants and come back over the course of time to take photographs until they flower and are more easily identified using a field guide. Watching the plants progression over time and the experience of looking at them closely through a camera lens, or even better yet drawing them, really helps to me to remember them the following year. The Photos below is one of the plants I have labeled in the garden this year to identify. I believe it is Canadian Mint (mentha canadensis) or one of the other downy kinds of mint. She smells like mint and has the typical square stem of a mint but only when she flowers will her true identity be revealed.
I find using hard copy, field guides far more practical than electronic devices for identification while outside. I could go on and on about how the digital world and nature are essential incompatible but, for now, I’ll leave it at that water, weather, grit and rocks don’t merge mix well with chips, ports, touch screens and electricity. I use these five books together and do not rely on one source for identification. There are lots of other books out there but I have found none as helpful as these five for my biosphere
A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs: Northeastern and north-central United States and southeastern and south-central Canada This guide walks you through identification in the field using shape and arrangements of leaves, height, color,bark texture, flowering season and fruit. It has clear, drawings, extensive descriptions and an excellent flow chart for winter identification, put no photographs .
A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America Again, excellent drawings and descriptions, some color photographs. It is based on the color of the flowers so the plant needs to be in bloom in order for you to identify it.
A Field guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America Excellent color photographs, although sometimes a bit small. Again organized by flower color so that the plant needs to be in bloom.
A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America Excellent drawings with some color photographs arranged by flower bloom color. A list of the plants by season which is helpful
Ontario Weeds- Publication 505 I use this government publication by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food a lot. It approaches the plants through a mindset of “evil plant” but has truly excellent photographs that are easy to leaf through with masterful illustrations and descriptions that examine the plant in minute detail. It is also one of the only references I’ve seen that has illustrations of both the early stages and later stages of growth.
Another way to speed up the process of identifying and growing your garden is to buy seeds or plants from a business that identifies their plants with the Latin names as well as the common names. That way you can study them as they grow and know what you are looking at. If you are serious about plants, sooner or later you realize that everything becomes easier if you start learning the Latin names. Relationship between plants of the same family become more obvious and specific cultivars easier to find. Our European ancestors spent a lot of time and effort to come up with the system and it does work. Sooner than you think, you will be able to look down at a volunteer sprout and think to yourself “hmmm brasilica….I wonder what kind?” Then wait a week or so until the true leaves appear to make a positive id.
For plants that are edible or medicinal I use a number of books to cross reference. A series of books that I find very useful in my studies are Eulle Gibbon’s books that were written in the 1970’s. Gibbon’s writes from personal experience and includes recipes that he has tried with each plant which is very refreshing approach because so many books today have recipes that the author has gleaned from the web but hasn’t tried themselves. Gibbons has a fascinating life story. He was born in Texas in 1911. Starting as a young boy, He and his mother would gather wild food to eat. He pursued his interest in wild food and herbs for his whole life. Even though he only had a sixth grade education he became an excellent writer. His books are a pleasure to read for their entertaining, personal and insightful tone. In the 1960’s he became famous and even did a commercial for Grape Nuts cereal as well as appearing on the Tonight Show among others. His books are:
- Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962)
- Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop (1964)
- Stalking the Healthful Herbs (1966)
- Stalking the Good Life (1966)
- Beachcomber’s Handbook (1967)
- A Wild Way To Eat (1967)
- Stalking the Faraway Places (1973)
- Feast on a Diabetic Diet (unknown publication date)