Plant Identification: The Scientific Method

may have mentioned that my plant knowledge is below average (more than one standard deviation below the mean for you stats people). As the weather heats up, more flowers bloom. I love blooming flowers except that as I spend this year trying to get acquainted with my gardens, I’d like to know their names.

So, I have a few strategies for plant identification. I’ll list them in order of use.

Strategy #1: Google description of flower/plant

I’m essentially a master at Google searches; I consider it an insult if I can’t find what I’m looking for on the web. This is not bragging; it is merely a fact.

When faced with an unknown flower (which happens a lot), I use a combination of Google description of flower + visual inspection of images + visual inspection of related images.

Strategy #1 identified this flower using “white flower tall stem four petals.

Hesperis matronalis
Hesperus matronalis, also known as dames rocket

Strategy #2: Reverse Image Search

When Strategy #1 fails (about 25% failure rate, which is much higher than my normal Google searches), I move to Google’s reverse image search. This feature is brilliant! I would use this more except that it works much better on PCs and Macs. Google hasn’t developed a method for using it on mobile devices, and I do most of my work on an iPad. There are some apps that claim to do the same thing, but I haven’t found an iPad app that has been successful for me.

The concept is that you upload an image and Google magically finds (by comparing pixels) similar images on the web. The best option for mobile devices is this website which found the name of this lovely flower.

digitalis purpurea
Digitalis purpurea, also known as foxglove

Strategy #3: Plant tag board in garage

The last set of previous owners stapled plant tags in the garage. I’ll note that these plant tags are only a small set of the plants in the yard. This strategy is listed last because I have a 100% fail rate so far. I haven’t found a single flower on the plant tag board. Either the plants have died, wandered off, or they bloom later in the season. I’m holding out hope that it will be a useful strategy at some point this summer.

Plant tag board

Here are some other flowers currently blooming in my yard. Just because. Most identified using Strategies #1 and #2.

rhododendron unbloomed
Rhododendron waiting to bloom

Irises are beautiful, and also a pain. Apparently there are bearded, beardless, and  aril iris. This is important because…it is. Something about how you divide and transplant or whatever. Anyway, there are billions of irises and many of them look alike.

I figured out the purple one below is beardless (no shaving needed), and I have no idea what it is called. I do not care; it is purple and that is all that matters. The other irises are bearded, which really should be called caterpillared as it looks like caterpillars are crawling out them. They are beautifully colored; they are also in a terrible location in my yard as my dogs like to walk right through them. Excellent. They will get improperly transplanted at some point.

Purple irises

No flowers in this photo, but I like it. Rain on an old mirror that I put on top of my old well.

rain on mirror

And file this under “Way too much work just for a name:”

I had the hardest time finding the name of this flower. I was thisclose to admitting defeat and asking for help. Then I tried Strategy #1 again with an expanded search: “pink flower five petal thin leaf blade silver spreading fringed.” FINALLY…SUCCESS! The lesson : persistence wins every time (plus all those lessons in elementary school teaching kids how to use descriptive words? Useful.).

Dianthus gratianopolitanus

My friend Gary wondered if there is a flower identification app. Is there? If not, there should be. I need one where I take a photo and presto magic–it tells me the name of the plant. Get on this developers.


4 thoughts on “Plant Identification: The Scientific Method

  1. B Hostetler

    Ah, yes, I have been in the same quandary. I’m seeing phlox and peonies in # 1 and 3, though I may be wrong. The foxgloves and beardless iris are stunning. Someone told me that bunnies don’t like to taste dianthus; that would be a blessing in Indiana.

    You could probably start a perienniel stand in front of your house.


    1. I thought phlox too as those are flowers I actually know. But they have five petals and Dames Rocket has four–they look almost identical otherwise.

      Likewise, the buds of peonies and rhododendrons look the same–you didn’t get the benefit of the blooms right next to the buds!


    2. I could do a plant stand in front of my house. I almost stopped a woman in Home Depot from buying some plants that I have too much of, but thought it would be creepy to tell her to come to my house to get them for free!


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