Nature study can be as simple as a short walk in the neighborhood or as elaborate as a week in a National Park. Don’t make it hard. Just go outside. This month, we suggest you spend some time outside every day that is reasonable and observe what wild herbs you can find in your own yard and around your neighborhood or local parks. You don’t have to know all the answers to your kids’ questions because you can look up the answers later.
Identifying Plants in the Wild
There are almost 400,000 known plants in the world. However, local wild plants are relatively fewer in number and can be readily identified, at least close to the proper species. However, even if you can’t identify the exact species, knowing something about the plant’s taxonomy can give you general clues about the plant, its biology, and how the plant might be used.
The first things to notice on a plant that quickly get you in the right part of the taxonomic tree are:
- Does the plant flower?
- Do the veins on the leaves go all in parallel (monocot) or in different directions (dicot)
- What is the branching pattern of the stem?
- How many leaves are there and how are they grouped?
- How many petals, pistils, and stamens are on the flower?
- What else stands out about the plant?
Common Herbs to look for this month
Mullein is in the Figwort family, which has irregular flowers that have 5 united sepals and 5 united petals. Usually, the flowers contain two pairs of stamens plus a shortened fifth stamen, though mullein contains five equal stamens. Mullein leaves are distinctive by being large and fuzzy. Although it starts its first year low to the ground with leaves around the base, the plant sends up a very tall flower spike in its second year (sometimes up to two meters) consisting of numerous small yellow flowers.
Plantain is a wild plant that is also edible. The leaves are all on the base of the plant, and the stem is a prominent central spike out of which grows numerous very small flowers, each of which has 4 united sepals, 4 united petals, and 4 stamens. The leaves of the plantain, on the first inspection, look like monocots (with parallel veins), but also have smaller veins going other directions. Plantains have significant root systems that allow for easy regrowth.
Echinacea, also known as “purple coneflower”, is a plant that is native to the lands east of the Rocky Mountains. They are part of the aster family, so the flower head consists of several outer purple leaves covering numerous inner flowers. It can be identified by the purple outer leaves draping downward and the cone shape that the inner flowers are mounted on. Many believe that echinacea boosts the immune system.
Yarrow, named Achillea because of its association with the Greek hero Achilles, is another member of the aster family but doesn’t look as sunflower-like as echinacea. It has flowers that look a bit like compound umbels, but, on closer inspection, they do not all originate from the same point. Thus it is classified as a branching, composite flower, which can be a variety of colors (but usually yellow). Yarrow also has distinctive feathery leaves. Yarrow has been used historically to heal wounds on the battlefield (which is why it is associated with Achilles).
Eight Flowering Plant Families You Should Know
There are some plant families that are so pervasive it is good to know their identifying characteristics. If you can identify the family, finding the specific species is usually somewhat easier. This list of families and identification markers comes from the book Botany in a Day.
- The mint family: a dicot family that has square stems, leaves opposite each other, and usually has an aroma. An example of this is peppermint.
- The parsley family: a dicot family that has compound umbels. An umbel means there are many flower heads that all branch from the same branch point, like an umbrella. A compound umbel means that those heads additionally have a smaller umbel at the end of each spoke.
- The mustard family: a dicot family that has 4 petals with 6 stamens (4 tall and 2 short).
- The pea family: a dicot family that has asymmetrical flowers, with three distinctive kinds of petals, known as the banner (a big upper petal), wings (two side petals), and keel (two lower petals which are often fused together).
- The lily family: a monocot family that has 3 sepals and 3 petals, usually identical in size and color.
- The grass family: grasses are fairly easy for most of us to identify. They are monocots that have hollow flower stems with prominent nodes. Bamboo is technically grass.
- The rose family: a dicot family that has 5 petals, lots of stamens, and often has oval, serrated leaves.
- The aster family: a dicot family where the flower heads are composite, with a single flower head containing numerous smaller flowers. An example of this is the sunflower.
Questions to Ask Yourself or Your Students
- Find a flowering plant. Can you identify each part of the plant?
- Find a flowering plant that you have many examples of. Count the petals on several of the plants. Do they all have the same number of petals (note—many plants, but not all, have a consistent number of petals on each plant)
- Find a plant that you know and appreciate. How would you describe it to others so that they could identify it without a picture or ever seeing it?
- Do you notice any insects on any of the plants? Do any insects seem to prefer certain plants over others?
- Find two different flowering plants. Look at each part of the plant, and each part of the flower. How are they similar and different?