If you enjoy growing houseplants, you have hundreds of species from which to choose. You might occasionally see a photograph of an attractive plant that you don't recognize but would like to grow, a situation that could become frustrating. If you examine each of the plant's basic features carefully, though, you should be able to identify it successfully.
Clues from Leaves
A plant's leaves make up one of its most distinctive features and are usually simple to see in a photo. Determine whether the plant has leaves of the more common type, flat and thin, or they appear to be thick or fat. A thick leaf identifies a succulent plant, one that can store water in its leaves. The aloe vera plant (Aloe vera) is an example of a common succulent houseplant; long, thick, pointed leaves grow as a rosette from the plant's center. If the plant in the photo has thin leaves, look at their shape; some are oval, round or even heart-shaped. For example, the heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium) is a common houseplant that's named for its leaf shape. These two kinds of plants are hardy outdoors year-round in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 through 11 and zones 10b through 11, respectively.
Observing the plant's general growth habit in the photo also can help in identification. Some houseplants are bushy and compact with a number of upright stems while others grow as vines. For example, the blunt-leaved peperomia plant, also called baby rubber plant (Peperomia obtusifolia), is a generally rounded and upright, 12-inch-tall plant with stiff, shiny oval leaves that are usually green with yellow edges and blotches. Other houseplants have long, trailing stems and do well supported on a trellis or in a hanging container, with vines trailing over the pot's edges. For example, the wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina) is a vining houseplant that has stems that are 1 to 2 feet long and covered with oval leaves, each bluish-green with two silvery stripes on their upper surfaces and purple on the reverse. The blunt-leaved peperomia plant is hardy in USDA zones 10 through 12, and wandering Jew is hardy in USDA zones 8 through 12.
Many common houseplants produce flowers, and their presence in a photo can be a good clue to a plant's identity, especially when added to other information in the photo. The African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha) is an example of a flowering houseplant. Its small, distinctive flowers are about 1 inch in diameter and emerge in groups from the center of the rosette-shaped plant. Most African violet flowers have five petals, with the two bottom petals smaller that the three above, although some types have double flowers. Begonias are also flowering houseplants that come in many types. The rex begonia (Begonia rex-cultorum), for example, has sprays of small, white or pink flowers and large, boldly colored leaves that can be red or burgundy. These plants are hardy in USDA zones 11 through 12 and zones 10 through 11, respectively.
Certain plants have unusual features that make them instantly recognizable in a photograph. For example, the snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) has sharply pointed, stemless and sword-shaped leaves that emerge straight upward from the plant's base. The leaves are dark green, stiff and shiny, and can be up to 4 feet tall. The spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is another unusual plant; it has thin green leaves with white edges that give it a spidery look. It's often grown in a hanging container because of its habit of producing plantlets that develop spontaneously and remain connected to the parent plant by long stems that cascade over the planter's edge. These two plants grow as perennials outdoors in USDA zones 10 through 12 and zones 9 through 11, respectively.