Plant Identification Books and Websites

Learning Plant Identification

The best way to learn to properly identify plants is from a live person.  Classes are available from herbalists focused on edibility and medicinal properties.  Botany classes are available at most community colleges.  Naturalists also know a lot of plant id.  Check your local nature center or the Bell Museum.  Don’t overlook people you may know in the community.   Gardeners, mushroom enthusiasts, wild-food foragers and farmers, science teachers and biologists also frequently know a lot of plants.

There are also many facebook groups devoted to herbalism and plant i.d. where members can post photos and get help with identification from other members. There are even smartphone apps these days where you upload your picture and it identifies the plant for you (Warning: while fun and possibly helpful, never consider information generated from one photo sent to an app as positive identification of the plant in questions. Consider it a starting point. Do not harvest for food or medicine unless you are 100% certain)

As you become more skilled at learning to see the differences among plants, it becomes increasingly easy to learn them from books as well.

The most expensive book filled with glossy photos isn’t necessarily the best–especially if the book focuses only on the flowers.  A line drawing sometimes captures the essence of the plant really well.

Good Resources for Beginners


Peterson’s Field Guide for Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Duke and Foster(the must-have for herbal plant i.d.)

Northland Wildflowers  by John and Evelyn Moyle  (specific to Minnesota; beautiful photos)

What’s Doin’ the Bloomin’?  by Clayton and Michele Oslund. (specific to the upper Midwest and organized uniquely by bloom time.)

Trees of Minnesota Field Guid by Stan Tekiela. (an affordable pocket-sized guide to MN trees and shrubs)

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by Peter Del Tredici ( a very well-illustrated guide to the many plants native and naturalized that grow wildly in cities and towns. The majority of the plants featured grow in MN/WI)

Websites:  (an exceptional resource. If you use this site often, you should consider donating to their ambitious and awesome project of documenting pretty much all the plant life in MN)  (Thomas Elpel’s site, author of Botany in a Day, with wonderful plant family profiles)


Want to Learn More?  Detailed and More Technical Resources

Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel (detailed book that teaches plants by family, allowing you to compare plants that are botanically related.)

Newcomb’s Wildflowers Guide by Lawrence Newcomb (this book has many fans due to it’s innovative key system)

Spring Wildflowers by  Carol Gracie(beautiful photos and detailed, but very technical monographs)

Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota by Welby R. Smith (this hefty and pricey volume is a wonderful investment. Detailed monographs, wonderful photos, distribution maps, detailed botanical information)

Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech (an innovative book designed to help you identify trees from their bark alone. Most, but not all, the trees in the book also grow in the upper Midwest)

Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest by Sam Thayer (these two books written by a WI foraging expert are the best foraing guides around and are useful for identifying plants in  our region. Many edible plants are also medicinal)

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