3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: WHAT’S THIS PLANT?

on May 21, 2014

By far the most commonly asked question on weed walks, through e-mailed or Facebook-messaged photos, or even via phone calls is, “What’s this plant?” Over the years I have learned that the sooner I reveal the name of a plant the quicker people stop listening and noticing details about the plant. It’s as if the name is the sum total of what constitutes knowing an organism. Imagine if we approached knowing people or animals like that. Just a long series of  girls, boys, dogs, cats, lizards, women, grandfathers, infants, and so on. Maybe some would go a little further and be able to label them Ben Johnson, Michelle Winston, Gi-gi, Golden Retriever, Siamese, etc. But that would hardly scratch the surface of actually knowing them, wouldn’t it?

I feel the same thing can happen with plants. I like to point at a jagged toothed  leafy plant on weed walks and ask who knows what the plant is. Almost invariably every hand goes up and I hear shouts of: Dandelion! And everyone is ready to move on because we all know the name and like to assume that means we know the plant. (Sometimes I am ornery and point to a young Chicory plant, which looks very similar until you get down close and notice the differences.) Then we proceed to spend another 20 minutes or so noticing details about the Dandelion, tasting, talking about its value and strengths, how it helps the soil, plants around it, humans. In 20 minutes I still know I have only scratched the surface because in the 5+ decades I have been walking this good green Earth and delighting in and using this plant, I continue to learn something new about it every single year.

So, for today’s wild plant (that turns out to be a traditional medicinal), I will save the name for the end (Please don’t scroll ahead!) and take you through a step-by-step process on how to identify a plant that you do not know. I always recommend using keys over field guides. Field guides can be wonderful tools and provide useful information. However, they can also make us lazy about our identification methods and can possibly result in mis-identifications. This is because most of us tend to flip through all those lovely color photos haphazardly hoping to come across one that matches the plant in front of us. The important information lies in the description and botanical terms, which all too often are ignored once a name/label has been found.

Two of my favorite keys are NEWCOMB’S WILDFLOWER GUIDE by Lawrence Newcomb and BOTANY IN A DAY by Thomas J. Elpel. Each one works slightly differently so I will stick to NEWCOMB’S today and save BOTANY IN A DAY for another plant on another day. NEWCOMB’S has no color photos so it often gets overlooked on book store shelves. You should read the introduction to understand fully how the key works  but you will see it in a nutshell here as we identify this plant:


This lush, green vine with the lovely heart shaped leaves is the one I am interested in today. It is growing in the woods near my home.

My first step is to just sit down and enjoy the plant, notice where it is growing (in a shady woodland), the direction in which is it growing (away from rather than toward the sun), other plants around it that I might know, and so on. I also like to simply “listen” to the plant. This is maybe a more elusive concept…learning directly from the plants themselves…but it is something I like to take time out to do. I often jot down “inspirations” that come to me about how the plant might be useful and to whom, which parts or whether to use it whole, dried or fresh, whether it might be food or medicine, etc. I don’t worry about being right about any of it because I will do research later to confirm or refute my perceptions. It’s just a very affirming experience living in the Information Age to remember that not all knowledge needs to be obtained in a linear, print- or electronic-based format. If this idea intrigues you Stephen Harrod Buhner has written extensively on the topic in THE LOST LANGUAGE OF PLANTS, SECRET TEACHINGS OF PLANTS: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature as well as his new release, PLANT INTELLIGENCE AND THE IMAGINAL REALM:Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth. I haven’t read the last one but it is on my wish list. There is never anything derivative about Mr. Buhner’s work. Gotta love someone whose job title includes Earth Poet & Bardic Naturalist.

These steps completed, I am ready to open my NEWCOMB’S and get started on a positive identification. There are 5 questions to answer (pg. x) and they go something like this:

*The first two questions have to do with flower type. Botanical terms are used but you don’t have to study and memorize them before using the key. Handy line drawings and explanations of terms are only a couple of pages away (starting on pg. xiv). So the first question is Is the flower regular (radially symmetrical) or irregular, or are the flower parts indistinguishable? Here is a very close, tight shot of a single tiny opened flower on the vine, thanks to my daughter’s photography skills (Thanks, Morgan!):


This flower is tiny, about the size of a peppercorn. A magnifying glass is a handy tool for noting details on such small blossoms.

For my second question NEWCOMB’S  asks, If regular, how many petals or similar parts does it have? If you don’t have a field guide, botany text, or other such book I am certain you can google these terms for now and find clear illustrations of the difference between regular and irregular flowers. I answered that the flower was regular with 6 petals. This resulted in me obtaining the first of three numbers that the book assigns in the keying out process. A flower with 6 regular parts (or petals) is given the number 6.

On to the next two questions that will help me determine the plant type. NEWCOMB’S asks Is the plant a wildflower or a shrub or a vine? If it is a wildflower, is it without leaves, or if it has leaves, are they all at the base of the plant, or are they arranged singly on the stem (alternate), or are they opposite one another in pairs or whorls? (There’s three new terms for you: alternate, opposite, and whorled…You’re learning to speak Botany!) Here are two more photos of my plant that can help answer these two questions:



What plant type would you classify this one as?

Due to the twining nature of the plant I chose to label it a vine. This gave me the second digit in the three digit number that helps locate the specific plant I am identifying. Vines are the plant type labeled with the number 6. Thus, I have a two digit key number now of 66.

The last question is about the type of leaf on the plant. NEWCOMB’S asks Are the leaves entire (with even and unbroken margins), or are they toothed or lobed or divided? Entire, toothed, lobed, divided…four more botanical terms; you’re doing great. Look back at the leaves in the photos of our lovely plant. What type do you think they are?

I called these leaves entire because the edges were smooth and unbroken. This leaf type gets a number 2, which means my three digit locator number for using the locator key in NEWCOMB’S is 662. I flip to the locator key which begins on page 1 and thumb through to number 662. That number tells me to turn to page 356 where I should find a line drawing of the plant in the picture above if I have answered all of the questions correctly. I’m pretty excited at this point and I’ve learned a bunch of new terms without any studying, memorizing or quizzes. The line drawing matches (Giant, happy smile inserted here!) but it is important not to stop here. I look to the left of the drawing to read the description carefully to make sure that is a match as well. Here is what I read:

“Flowers in drooping racemes or spikes, leaves long-pointed, heart-shaped at the base. Flowers small, greenish-yellow, the staminate and pistillate in separate clusters. [You’ll learn those terms as you go along but you don’t need them to use this key.] Leaves entire and alternate, or the lower ones in whorls of 3. Stem twining 5-15 feet long. Moist thickets, s. New England to Minnesota and south…”

I double check all these features on the plant in front of me. (Is it driving you crazy yet that I haven’t told you the name?) But what’s this? I do, indeed, see both alternate and whorled leaves but the whorled ones have more than 3 leaf stems. Here are some photos of the two leaf attachment types on the same plant.


Leaf stems are attached here in a staggered, or “alternate” manner.


Clearly whorled leaf stem attachments but I count 5 here. 

But now I am armed with a name (which I will eventually reveal to you…I promise). I take this name and look up more information on the plant in my Peterson Field Guide EASTERN/CENTRAL MEDICINAL PLANTS by Steven Foster and James A. Duke and read:

“Perennial twining vine; stem smooth. Leaves alternate (lower ones in whorls of 3-8), heart-shaped, hairy beneath; veins conspicuous. Flowers not showy; male and female flowers separate…”

Bingo! Now I feel confident that I have correctly identified this plant. It matches the line drawings and descriptions in both books as well as the color photograph (the LAST thing I looked at) in Peterson’s. That book further tells me that:

“American Indians used the root tea to relieve labor pains. The freshly dried root (tea) formerly used by physicians for colic, gastrointestinal irritations, morning sickness, asthma, spasmodic hiccough, rheumatism, and ‘chronic gastritis of drunkards.’ Contains diosgenin, used to manufacture progesterone and other steroid drugs. Of all plant genera, there is perhaps none with greater impact on modern life but whose dramatic story is as little known as [this plant]. Most of the steroid hormones used in modern medicine, especially those in contraceptives, were developed from elaborately processed chemical components derived from [this plant]. Drugs made with…(diosgenins) relieve asthma, arthritis, eczema, regulate metabolism and control fertility. Synthetic products manufactured from diosgenins include human sex hormones (contraceptive pills), drugs to treat menopause, dysmenorrhea, premenstrual syndrome, testicular deficiency, impotency, prostate hypertrophy, and psycho-sexual problems, as well as high blood pressure, arterial spasms, migraines, and other ailments. Widely prescribed cortisones and hydrocortisones were indirect products of the genus Dioscorea. They are used for Addison’s disease, some allergies, bursitis, contact dermatitis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, brown recluse spider bites, insect stings, and other diseases and ailments. Warning: Fresh plant may induce vomiting and other undesirable side effects.”

Wow! What a plant and it is growing just outside my door and was not even planted or cultivated by any human. I hope you are as blown away by this as I am. Aren’t you glad that I didn’t just tell you the name of the plant right off? But I guess it is time, if you haven’t already guessed it…drum roll, please…

WILD YAM (Dioscorea villosa)


Handy identification tool kit. The magnifying glass is not essential but it can prove useful. I don’t usually write down my number results as I’ve done here but I wanted to be able to show the process clearly. The printed page is from NEWCOMB’S WILDFLOWER GUIDE and is the question page used to determine your three digit number for using the locator key and identifying the plant in question. The whole process took a little over 10 minutes, most of which was spent taking pictures. I had the plant identified in about 2 minutes. It certainly took far less time that writing about it did! It might be good to start with a couple of plants you actually already know, such as Dandelion, until you are comfortable using a key to identify. 

I have lost track of the precise quote or even the writer  (I think it was educational innovator, John Holt.) but I read a wonderful definition of intelligence many decades ago. It went something like this:

Intelligence is not defined by how many facts you know and can recall but, rather, by what you do when you don’t know the answer. 

I love that and try to keep it foremost in my mind as I go about my life. If we choose not to learn to use tools for finding answers we do not currently know, we will always be limited by what the one teaching us knows and what we can retain. But if we take the explorer’s approach, packing an abundant supply or curiosity and wonder, and take useful tools in hand…the sky’s the limit. Or is it?

Hoping all your discoveries are happy ones! ~Leenie

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