Advice for beginners, but some more advanced links to resources for ID at bottom of blog.
Recently, a few people have posted on our Instagram and Facebook photos asking help with identification. It can be really tricky to ID things via a shaky mobile photo and I generally prefer not as I can’t usually be 100% confident unless I could see sharp clear botanical features. Those are, more often than not, the part that is missing from the snapshot.
I gave some lines of advice and it really got me thinking about what I did when I first started out foraging. Gaining confidence is key. Here are a few things that I would advice on the path to becoming good at ID. It’s not a quick process, apart from the first few, but it is a satisfying and worthwhile journey.
10-point plan for improving plant identification skills
1. You don’t need to know allll the plants. Just start with a few, step by step. So, choose 1-5 and really get to know it/them. Once you have your ‘eye’ in for those, you can move on to more.
2. Choose really common plants first, ones that grow everywhere. Good ones to choose have lots of uses, edible and medicinal, which will keep you busy experimenting for a while. We recommend things like nettle, elder, hawthorn, linden, wild rose.
3. Get a good book. My first go-to guides are photographic chronological ones without complicated keys - my favourites are Roger Phillips Wild Flowers of Britain (Pan Books, 1977) writing this in November 2018, I can see second hand copies for under £2 on amazon. The other book Sarah Cuttle and Rae Spencer’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (2005 & 2018 reprint). The new version is a few pound, and older versions are pennies second hand. Links on pictures. It doesn’t have to be a book, there are some useful websites. I have added some free, online plant ID keys at the end of the blog.
4. Buy a few books. it’s good to get a cross reference on an ID. The previous two books may not be the smallest books, but very worth packing them when you go out. There are also plenty of pocket guides too.
5. Keep a Journal. Keep notes, sketches, comments and locations of plants in a handy pocket book. it is useful to record thoughts and id tips. Also locations for returning at another time.
6. Note locations. It is great to return to the same plant throughout the season, and I’ll talk about this in the next point so keep a note of its location. As the year goes on, the landscape transforms and I can rarely ever remember where I saw something, especially those rarer things. Google maps allow you to ‘label’ places, which can be a handy tool (If you get reception in the middle of the woods. Works for urban foraging though).
7. Plant of the year. An amazing way to get to really know a plant is ‘stalk’ it for a year. Go sketch it through the seasons, try the different parts (if not toxic, obviously) and try all the recipes you can all year round. Take notes, sketches, photographs. You don’t have to go hiking to virgin countryside to do this. Just choose a tree you see on your commute (See the study of a beech tree above by Jo Durant).
8. Find people who know this plant, and get them to show you. Even if they aren’t botanists. Many Grannies and Grandads (they don’t have to be yours) are good at this.
9. Find a Hedgerow Hassler. If you ever see someone picking things/staring at hedges carefully, and feel comfortable doing so, go ask them what they are doing and what they will use the plant for. I have learnt many things this way.
10. Go on a foraging walk. You really can’t beat learning from others who can SHOW you. So follow up points, ,5 & 6 if you can - Go on a foraging walk. Plenty good ones out there. Start at the Association of Forager’s directory to find your most local forager. Ask to be put on their mailing list for upcoming walks. You can also find courses on just plant id, though usually without the ethnobotanical uses, from the Field Studies Council (FSC)
Once you have ‘got your eye in’ you’ll start recognising plants yards away and all that generic green space will start to become a fascinating hedgerow library.
Good luck on your journey, and let me know any questions or share the tips that helped you in the comments below.
Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) key:
Go Botany, New England Wild Flower Society (Still useful for Europe)