Friday, June 10, 2011

What's That?

Plants with big, showy flowers are fairly easy to identify, at least when they display their flower. Most of the time, plants seem to be at some stage in their development that makes it difficult to come up with an accurate identification. In the past, I would find an unknown plant such as this seedling and put all of my effort into fully examining every detail in an attempt to learn its identify. Now I use a different technique.

It’s unusual for a plant to be the only one of its kind in the area. With a little searching it’s quite likely that another will be found. Here’s a second individual that makes it clear that there are a pair of seed leaves. So now I know it’s a dicot.

Seeds and their resulting seedlings develop at different rates. Finding a plant that is developing its first true leaf shows that the plant has divided leaves. Now the field is beginning to narrow.

Three parted leaves? That’s not Poison Ivy or any other three parted leaf that I’m familiar with. It’s common for early or undeveloped leaves to lack the full range of characteristics associated with mature leaves, so it’s possible that there’s more to be seen. When you’re unsure, you should keep on looking.

This is beginning to look like something. A five parted leaf. Now the shape is matching a pattern I’m familiar with.

They are young Virginia Creepers. I see the mature vines every day, trying to claim one side of my house. This method of scouting around for other specimens doesn’t work every time, but it’s definitely worth a try when confronted by an unknown plant. There are times when there is indeed only a single specimen of a plant on the site and times when every plant in the population is at the exact same stage of development. Sometimes you have to walk away from the mystery plant with just the knowledge that you’ll be back another time to uncover its secret identity.

Looking around, it’s clear that Virginia Creeper is a common ground cover plant here, so you would expect to find a few of its seedlings. I have to admit that I did recognize the seedlings as soon as I saw them. Virginia Creeper is a species that I’ve germinated in pots, so I’ve watched several batches of the seedlings develop. The only other seedlings that are similar are those of grapes which are in the same family as the Virginia Creeper, but grapes won’t have the divided leaf. Now there are only a couple thousand more Ohio species that I have to learn at the seedling stage.


  1. great lesson post, now add mal or deformed plant parts to the mix like the fused petal jewelweed i found the other day and it really gets fun if you only have one specimen.

  2. Thanks, Michael. You're right about there being a lot of other things that can make for a difficult identification, but if we list them all it'll make it sound like an impossible job.