A Guide to Spotting and Identifying Plants

Identifying plants involves observing different plant characteristics and comparing them to species or families with similar features. It’s broadly divided into seven steps: 

  • Step 1: Examine the leaves, noting their shape, margins, and venation.
  • Step 2: Identify the leaf arrangement, whether it’s lobed, smooth, or serrated. 
  • Step 3: Observe the stems and branches.
  • Step 4: Note fruits and flowers, paying attention to their shape, size, arrangement, and color.
  • Step 5: Check for hairs, thorns, or barbs.
  • Step 6: Examine the roots.
  • Step 7: Note the region and climate.

Plant identification apps, such as PictureThis, Pl@ntNet, Floral Incognia, and Google Lens can help you identify plant species with advanced image recognition tech. These apps leverage an extensive database of plant species and profiles to streamline the identification process.

Visually identifying plants can be a bit tricky at first, but with enough practice and research, you’ll be able to confidently identify or at least narrow down plants based on their unique features.

Start by familiarizing yourself with key characteristics of common plant families, including their taxonomy and terminology. Make use of field guides and other plant-related resources to aid your learning process. 

If you’re unsure of where to begin with plant identification, use this article as a starting point. We’ll discuss key characteristics to look for, how to use a photo to identify a plant, and how to effectively improve your visual identification skills among others.

How to Identify a Plant?

Plant identification, also known as plant taxonomy, is the science of naming, identifying, and classifying plants based on their characteristics and evolutionary relationships. It covers a range of plant disciplines, including ecology, botany, morphology, and genetics. 

Identifying a plant involves carefully observing its physical features and characteristics, such as leaf shape, flower color, odor, form, etc., and linking those features with a name, family, or class. 

It also involves identifying the plant’s habitat and ecology, as well as its geographical distribution.

When it comes to plant identification, not all characteristics hold equal weight. 

According to plant specialist Dr. Jane Mangold, leaves are the most diagnostic feature for plant identification. You can use their shape, size, arrangement, and venation (the arrangement of veins) to pinpoint their exact species or genus. 

For example, lobed leaves with serrated edges might suggest a species of oak, while heart-shaped leaves with a net-like venation could belong to the genus Asarum. Asteraceaes exhibit alternate, toothed leaves with prominent veins, Rosaceas have compound leaves and serrated edges, and Lamiaceaes have aromatic, opposite leaves. And so on. 

That said, leaves are only one piece of a puzzle. To accurately identify a plant, you also need to examine the plant’s flowers, fruits, stems, and overall growth habits.  

Understanding how to identify plants at a baseline level is a skill everyone should have, regardless of their interests or profession. 

Let’s say you receive a plant as a gift and neither you nor your friend know its name. Having basic plant identification skills will enable you to research its care and growth requirements, as well as its toxicity around children and pets. 

It’s also useful in more dire situations, like when you get lost while hiking in the wilderness. Being able to recognize edible vs. inedible plants and ones with medicinal properties can literally be life-saving. 

Plant identification is fairly easy when you know what characteristics to look for. Here’s a step-by-step guide on identifying plants:  

Examine the Leaves

Leaves are among the most telling features when identifying plants. 

Though some species share similar leaf characteristics, most have a combination of unique attributes such as leaf arrangement, venation patterns, and specialized structures like glands or hairs. 

When examining the leaves, first note the shape and size. Broad, wide leaves are common in tropical plants, while narrow, elongated leaves are common in desert plants. Pointy, needle-like leaves may indicate an evergreen species.  Triangular leaves appear in herbaceous plants. 

Identify the Leaf Arrangement

Next, observe the structure and the formation of the plant’s leaves. 

Look at the arrangement of leaves on the stem, the lobes or serration along the leaf edges, and the patterns of veins running through the leaves. 

Plants with alternate leaf arrangement and serrated leaf edges often belong to the Daisy family (Asteraceae), while plants with opposite leaf arrangement and lobed leaf edges are commonly found in the Legume family (Fabaceae). 

Plants with pinnate veins running parallel to the leaf margins are common in dicotyledonous plants, such as roses, beans, and oaks. 

Plants with palmate veins radiating from a central point appear most in Asteraceae plants, as seen in sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) or dandelions (Taraxacum officinale).

Observe the Stems and Branches

Pay attention to the stems and branches of the plant. Observe their texture, color, and arrangement, as well as other identifying features such as thorns, ridges, or branching patterns. 

Succulent stems are thick and fleshy, adapted to store water in hot environments. 

Woody plants have tough, woody stems with prominent branching, such as those seen in maples, oaks, and pines, as well as shrubs like blueberries and roses. 

Herbaceous plants have soft, non-woody stems that often die back in the winter.

Note Fruits and Flowers

A plant’s fruits and flowers are another key aspect to note while identifying plants. 

As you already know, fruits come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and arrangements. The same is said with flowers, which exhibit diverse structures, colors, and fragrances. 

Berry-like fruits are common in the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), the Heath family (Ericaceae), and the Madder family (Rubiaceae). Long, thin pods are characteristic of plants under the Pea family (Fabaceae), while round, fleshy fruit might suggest a drupe.

Purple, black, and blue-skinned berries are often edible (with some exceptions like the black twinberry honeysuckle), while white, green, and yellow berries can potentially be poisonous, according to the University of Wyoming. 

Flowers are a little harder to narrow down because they undergo significant changes throughout their development stages. 

Generally, though, plants with four or five petals are commonly seen in the Rose family (Rosaceae) and Mint family (Lamiaceae), while flowers with six petals are characteristic of the Iris family (Iridaceae) and Lily family (Lilaceae). 

Plants with trumpet-shaped flowers, characteristic of the Nightshade family, often contain toxic alkaloids that can be dangerous when ingested. Plants with composite flowers arranged in flat-topped clusters often have edible or medicinal properties. 

Check for Hairs, Thorns, or Barbs

Plants develop hairs, thorns, or barbs to protect themselves against predators. These characteristics are common in plants that grow in challenging environments. 

Plants with thorns or spines are often found in arid regions, where water is scarce and protection against herbivores is crucial for survival. 

Similarly, plants with hairy or prickly leaves are common in grasslands, where they deter grazing animals. Plants growing in exposed, windy areas also benefit from hairy or prickly leaves.

Though not entirely exclusive, a good number of these plants can cause harm if touched. 

Stinging nettles, for example, contain needle-like hairs on their stems that induce a stinging or burning sensation upon contact. 

Poison Ivy and Poison Oak contain urushiol, a toxic oil that causes an allergic reaction. 

And many species of spurge contain toxic milky sap that can result in skin irritation, redness, and blistering. 

So if you see a plant with a defense mechanism, whether it be thorns, barbs, or hairs, admire them from a reasonable distance. Don’t touch or brush against them to avoid skin irritation. 

Examine the Roots

If you’re able to unearth the roots, observe their color, texture, thickness, and pattern of growth. 

Specialized structures such as tubers, rhizomes, or nodules can be indicative of specific plant families or species. 

Tubers, for example, are common in the Nightshade family, while Rhizomes are characteristic of the Ginger (Zingiberaceae) family and the Iris family (Iridaceae). Leguminous plants form nodules on their roots.

Note the Region and Climate

Most of a plant’s characteristics are dependent on its region and environment. 

Evergreens grow in abundance in cold, coniferous forests. Meanwhile, tropical flowers, algae, and ferns grow in humid, moist climates, where they exhibit characteristics like broad leaves and dense foliage to maximize photosynthesis. 

What Other Methods Are There for Plant Identification? 

Beyond basic observation, other methods of plant identification include asking experts, doing research, or joining plant identification groups or workshops. 

You can also visit botanical gardens or arboretums to compare unknown plants to known specimens. 

If all else fails, you can turn to plant identification apps like Flora Incognita, iNaturalist, and PictureThis.  

What Are Plant Identifier Apps? 

Plant identifier apps are web/mobile applications that determine the family, species, or type of plant using descriptions and photographs. 

According to botanist Ryan Pankau of the University of Illinois, plant identifier apps process visual data similar to facial recognition. 

They analyze key features of the plant, including its patterns, shapes, colors, and textures. 

They then compare the analyzed image to an internal database of plant information, which contains millions of images and descriptions of various plant species. 

Research by Rutgers University found that plant identifier apps don’t always accurately pinpoint the exact species of the plant, with most apps displaying a species-level accuracy of 40.9% to 83.9%. Genus-level identification showed a higher level of accuracy of 71.8% to 97.3%. 

Among the six most downloaded apps Rutgers tested, two of the most accurate were PictureThis, with 83.9% species and 97.3% genus accuracy, and iNaturalist, with 69.6% species and 92.3% genus accuracy. 

The British Ecological Society tested the Flora Incognita app by asking two expert botanists to assess its accuracy. 

Out of the 1,000 images provided, the botanists were able to assess 847 and concluded that 787 (93%) were accurately identified by the app. 

Under field conditions—i.e., background clutter, presence of multiple plant species nearby, or poor light conditions—the app had an 85.3% accuracy rate.

Here are some of the most commonly used plant identification apps on App Store and Google Play: 


  • Downloads: 10m+ 
  • Rating: 4.6 stars (Google Play), 4.8 stars (App Store)
  • Reviews: 1m+ reviews 
  • Cost: Free, with subscription-based purchases 

PictureThis is an AI-driven app that recognizes over 17,000 different plants.

After analyzing the photo, the app displays a list of potential plants each with detailed plant profiles and information such as plant type, height, spread, bloom time, habitat, and more. 

It also has a section dedicated to how to care for varying types of plants.  

Flora Incognita 

  • Downloads: 1m+ 
  • Rating: 4.6 stars (Google Play), 4.8 (App Store)
  • Reviews: 32K+ reviews 
  • Cost: Free  

Flora Incognita was developed as part of a scientific research project that aims to improve nature conservation. As such, it’s completely free to use with no ads, no premium version, and no subscription. 

Flora Incognita has an accuracy of over 90% and can identify plants with precision even when they’re not in bloom. Plus, it has a map feature that allows you to visualize plant sightings in your local area. This makes it easier to track and document plant biodiversity.  


  • Downloads: 10m+ 
  • Rating: 4.4 stars (Google Play), 4.6 (App Store)
  • Reviews: 200K+ reviews (Google Play)
  • Cost: Free, with subscription-based purchases  

Pl@ntNet identifies plants via visual information. It boasts one of the largest databases of plant species, able to recognize up to 20,000 unique fauna, shrubs, and trees. 

Features include multi-flora identification, filtering species by family or genus, and identifying plants even without an internet connection.  

Google Lens 

  • Downloads: 1b+ 
  • Rating: 4.6 stars (Google Play)
  • Reviews: 2m+ reviews 
  • Cost: Free 

Google Lens isn’t strictly a plant identification app, but it can analyze the image of an unknown plant and provide you with relevant information. The search returns results with the plant’s common name, pictures of similar species, or links to botanical websites with detailed descriptions. You can use this information to narrow down your search. 

Like most apps on this list, Google Lens uses AI and image recognition technology to identify the plant. 

The exact size of Google Lens’ data is unknown, but it’s safe to say that it’s incredibly extensive. 

It might not be as accurate as dedicated plant identification apps, but it still serves as a convenient tool to quickly obtain information about unknown plants—especially since it comes pre-installed in some Android devices. 

How to Use a Photo (Picture) to Identify a Plant?

Google Lens is one of the best apps for identifying plants because of its seamless integration with the Google ecosystem. As part of the Google app suite, it benefits from extensive data resources and continuous updates. 

To use Google Lens, open the Google Lens app and capture a clear photo of the plant you want to identify. 

Google Lens will analyze the photo within seconds and display information about the plant, including potential species, common name, and other relevant details. It’ll also provide links to additional resources, like botanical websites. 

If you don’t want to download the Google Lens app, you can instead go to the Google app on your phone and tap on the Lens icon in the search bar. 

What Are the Most Distinctive Features to Consider When Identifying Plant Families?

Accurately identifying plants involves combining several key characteristics that point toward the most likely family. The most distinctive features to prioritize include: 

Leaf Arrangement and Structure

Pay attention to how the leaves are positioned on the stem. Are they whorled, opposite, or alternate? Also, consider the leaf shape (lobed, simple, compound), and margin (smooth, serrated). All these features contribute to family identification. 

Leaf Venation 

Leaf venation can determine the number of cotyledons present in the seed, which you can use to narrow down a plant’s family and genus. 

Parallel veins are common in monocots while netted veins are common in dicots. 

Flower Structure

The flower’s shape and arrangement, number of petals, and presence of sepals offer clues to a plant’s family. 

Determine the shape; are the petals fused or separate? Arranged symmetrically or asymmetrically? Do they have prominent sepals?

How to Identify a Leaf  

One of the most reliable ways to identify a plant is by looking at its leaves. 

The first step in identifying a plant via its leaves is to look at the leaf arrangement. Is it simple or compound? 

Simple leaves are individual leaves connected to a tree branch. Meanwhile, compound leaves are composed of multiple leaflets attached to a single leaf stalk. 

Compound leaves are further divided into pinnate, palmate, and bipinnate. Pinnate leaves are arranged on both sides of a central leaf stalk, while palmate leaves radiate from a single point, like the fingers. Bipinnate leaves have leaflets divided into smaller leaflets. 

The second step is looking at the leaf shape and margin. Common leaf shapes include: 

  • Palmate 
  • Star-shaped 
  • Ovate (Egg-shaped)
  • Lanceolate (Long and Narrow)
  • Oblong (Rectangular-shaped)
  • Elliptic (oval-shaped)

Plants with lanceolate, oblong, and elliptic leaves are common in the Rose family, while plants with palmate or pinnate leaves are characteristic of the Legumes family and the Palm family. 

The leaf margins can also provide clues for identification. Leaf margins may be smooth, serrated, lobed, or deeply divided. 

How Can You Improve Your Visual Plant Identification Skills? 

As with most disciplines, the best way to improve your visual plant identification is through consistent practice, observation, and research. 

Whenever you’re free, read about the shared characteristics of common plant families. 

It’s also a smart idea to carry your field guide whenever you’re outdoors. When you encounter an unfamiliar plant, consult the guide and try to match its features to the descriptions and pictures. 

If you don’t have a guide, snap a picture and upload it to Google Lens or a plant identification app. 

Don’t hesitate to consult experienced naturalists, botanists, and gardeners when you find yourself unable to identify a particular plant. 

If you don’t have access to these professionals, consult the Natural Gardening Association forum, the iNaturalist Community Forum, or r/Whatsthisplant or r/PlantIdentification on Reddit. 

How to Identify Alocasia Species 

Here’s a brief guide on how to identify common Alocasia species: 

How to Identify Alocasia black velvet 

  • Leaf Structure: Dark green, oval-shaped leaves with prominent veins.
  • Inflorescence: Spadix inflorescence with a greenish-white or purplish spathe. 
  • Flower Characteristics: Small and inconspicuous, hidden within the spathe.
  • Odor: Doesn’t have a strong odor.
  • Fruit: Small, green berries.
  • Root: Rhizomatous root system.

How to Identify Alocasia odora 

  • Leaf Structure: Large, elongated, glossy green leaves with prominent white veining. 
  • Inflorescence: Greenish-white inflorescence enclosed in a spathe.  
  • Flower Characteristics: Small flowers clustered on the spadix.
  • Odor: Reminiscent of chocolate or vanilla, hence the common name Sweet-Scented Alocasia.  
  • Fruit: Orange-red berries. 
  • Root: Rhizomatous root system.

How to Identify Alocasia cuprea

  • Leaf Structure: Elongated leaves, can either be oval or heart-shaped. Has prominent white-silver veins that resemble zebra stripes, thus the common name Zebra Alocasia
  • Inflorescence: Spadix inflorescence with a spathe.
  • Flower Characteristics: Small, inconspicuous white flowers.
  • Odor: Doesn’t have a strong odor.
  • Fruit: Small, green berries. 
  • Root: Rhizomatous root system.

How to Identify Alocasia cuprea 

  • Leaf Structure: Metallic, copper-colored leaves with a wrinkled surface. Can either be oblong or heart-shaped. 
  • Inflorescence: Spadix inflorescence surrounded by a greenish spathe.
  • Flower Characteristics: Small, inconspicuous white flowers.
  • Odor: Doesn’t have a noticeable odor.
  • Fruit: Small, orange-red berries.
  • Root: Rhizomatous root system.

How to Identify Alocasia cucullata 

  • Leaf Structure: Glossy, dark green, arrow-shaped leaves with prominent veins. 
  • Inflorescence: Spadix inflorescence with a hood-like spathe.
  • Flower Characteristics: Small, inconspicuous flowers.
  • Odor: Doesn’t have a noticeable odor.
  • Fruit: Small, white berries.
  • Root: Rhizomatous root system.

How to Identify Alocasia micholitziana 

  • Leaf Structure: Large, deep green, glossy arrowhead-shaped leaves and silver-white veins.
  • Inflorescence: Spadix inflorescence enclosed in a spathe.
  • Flower Characteristics: Large, white flowers with a long, yellow spadix. 
  • Odor: Doesn’t have a strong odor.
  • Fruit: Large, orange berries 
  • Root: Rhizomatous root system.

How to Identify Alocasia macrorrhiza 

  • Leaf Structure: Large, heart-shaped leaves with prominent veins and deep green leaves. 
  • Inflorescence: Spadix inflorescence enclosed in a spathe.
  • Flower Characteristics: Large, white flowers with a long, yellow spadix. 
  • Odor: Doesn’t have a noticeable odor.
  • Fruit: Large, orange berries 
  • Root: Tuberous root system.


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