"What's in a name?" Shakespeare's Juliet demands. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." True though these words may be, a gardener seeking pruning information on a rose (Rosa spp.) she has misidentified as a nasturtium (Nasturtium spp.) is in for trouble. With so much good information available for gardeners on the Web and in libraries, it would be a shame to waste your time with an incorrect identification. Take the time to find the correct name for that plant or flower.

Identify a Plant Like Sherlock Identifies a Suspect

Ideally you would have the common or scientific names of every flower in your yard, but in this situation, you have to start simply. A photograph or specimen blossom works well here, but if that is not possible, look closely at the flower and note all the details.

Shape Is Key

The flower can be a "normal" shape, having petal-like parts that circle the flower center. If so, note the number of petals. Alternatively, the flower can be:

  • An irregular shape with petals of different sizes or asymmetrical placement
  • A bell shape with petals fused together and hanging downward
  • A tube shape with long, fused petals
  • An indistinct shape that doesn't fit into any other category

Whichever shape the flower has, note the color of its petals or petal-like parts and any other shades in the center, where the plant's sexual parts, the stigma and pistil, are located. At the same time, measure and note the length and width of the blossom and the height and width of the plant. The season of bloom is also significant.

Clusters Tell Tales

How the flowers appear on the plant is another valuable clue. Rather than try to use botanical terms for the flower attachment, simply note what you see.

A flower might be round or oval and top a stalk. It might present as a stalk, with many stemless blossoms arranged along the upper part of a stem, or as a raceme that looks like a stalk but has each flower attached to it by a separate stalk. Flowers in branching clusters are called panicles, and if they are all growing at the same level around a single stalk, refer to them as whorls. Many smaller flowers may each grow on small stems to present a flat or convex floration.

If your flower does not present in any of these ways, don't worry. Just describe the structure of its cluster so that you remember it.

Leaves Count Too

It's the flower that interests you, but leaf color, shape and attachment also provide clues to identify a plant. Look first at the color. Most leaves are green, but note the shade of green on the top and bottom of the leaf, and whether the veins are the same shade.

Next, note or draw out the leaf shape. It might be long and narrow, long and wide, round, oval or needled. The leaf's attachment can be simple, with each leaf growing on its own, separate from others, or compound, with multiple leaflets attached to one stalk. The edges of the leaves may be smooth or toothed.

Who You Gonna Ask?

Unfortunately, the days of having grandparents well-versed in local botany are long gone, so unless you are very lucky, you'll need to find another source for information. You could start with your town's biggest garden store since plant vendors are often up to date on local flowers, but don't worry if they are clueless.

Visit the websites of local or regional universities that offer lists of native or local flowers together with photos or search features. Or head to the library and ask for help finding books that list flowers by their distinguishing characteristics.

Regardless of where you live in the country, you can use the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's database to search for plants native to this country. You can search by common name, scientific name or plant characteristics. For non-native plants, try the search feature on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website.