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Are you still thumbing through hundreds of pictures to identify wildflowers?
That's the way I started learning plants, but now there is a much easier way!

     Plants that are related to each other have similar characteristics for identification. Botanists have simply looked for patterns in plants and created groups called "families" according to those patterns. In the northern latitudes where there are hard freezes during winter, there are only about 100 broad patterns representing tens of thousands of plant species. Once you identify the family your wild flower belongs to then you can still use your color picture book to identify the species, but now you only have to look through a few pictures to find a match, not hundreds. Learn how right here:

Learning to Identify Plants by Families
It will forever change the way you look at plants

      Grandma Josie always loved to walk her dogs down in the meadows, following cow trails through the thickets of willow and juniper along the creek. I loved to walk with her, and together we collected wild herbs for teas, such as yarrow, blue violets, peppermint, red clover and strawberry leaves. We drank herbal tea every day. When I was sick she gave me yarrow tea with honey in it, plus she buried cloves of garlic in cheese to help me get them down. Grandma kindled my love for plants. She taught me the plants she knew. Then I wanted to learn about all the rest.

      We collected unfamiliar flowers on our walks, and paged through books of color pictures to identify them. It was not a fast process, but I was a kid and had the luxury of time. If I could not find the name of a specimen in our books, then I brought it into the herbarium at the university and asked for help. They keyed out the plant and gave me the Latin name for it. At home I researched the name through all of my books to learn anything I could about the uses for that species. In this way I learned most of significant plants of southwest Montana before I was out of high school, or so I thought.

      Years later, I launched Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School, LLC and hosted an herbal class at our place. I thought I "knew" most of the plants discussed in the class, but Robyn, the herbalist, used an approach I had never seen before. We happened across several members of the Rose family, and Robyn pointed out the patterns-- that the flowers had five petals and typically numerous stamens, plus each of them contained tannic acid and were useful as astringents to help tighten up tissues. An astringent herb, she told us, would help close a wound, tighten up inflammations, dry up digestive secretions (an aid for diarrhea) and about twenty other things. In a few short words she outlined the identification and uses for the majority of plants in this one family.

      Some of my books listed the family names of the plants, but never suggested how that information could be useful. I realized that while I knew many plants by name, I never actually stopped to look at any of them! This may sound alarming, but it is surprisingly easy to match a plant to a picture without studying it to count the flower parts or notice how they are positioned in relation to each other. In short, Robyn's class changed everything I ever knew about plants. From there I had to relearn all the plants in a whole new way. I set out to study the patterns among related species, learning to identify plants and their uses together as groups and families.

      My quest turned into a book Botany in a Day, to share with other people this "patterns method" of learning plants. On plant walks with a favorable selection of specimens to look at, I've been able to cover the critical patterns for identification and uses of seven or eight major families of plants, representing tens of thousands of species worldwide in just two hours.

      I tell my students it is okay if they do not know the name of a single plant at the end of the walk, but I expect them to recognize family characteristics and be able to make logical guesses as to how those plants might be used. When we come to an unknown specimen in our walks, I don't tell the group what it is, they tell me, according to the patterns they have learned.

      There are about 100 families of plants across the frost-belt of the continent, with at least 30 additional families occurring farther south where it never freezes. Through this article I will introduce you to seven of the largest and easiest-to-recognize families of plants, which are found worldwide. In the next hour or two you will learn the basic patterns of identification and many of the uses for more than 45,000 species of plants worldwide. Take a little bit of time to practice these patterns where ever you go-- in gardens or weed patches, botanical gardens, the nursery, the florist, or the wild. When you learn to instantly recognize these and other family patterns, the world of plants will never look quite the same again. The following pages are meant to be read in order, as new ideas are introduced on each page to prepare you for the following page. Some of these pages include lots of pictures and may take a while to load.

Go to Page 1: The Mustard Family
Go to Page 2: The Mint Family
Go to Page 3: The Parsley Family
Go to Page 4: The Pea Family
Go to Page 5: The Lily Family
Go to Page 6: The Mallow Family
Go to Page 7: The Aster/Sunflower Family



Check out Botany in a Day

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Dear Mr. Elpel,

      "Botany in a Day is hands down the best plant book I have ever come across. I wish I had this book years ago. Thanks for all the time and effort you put into it. You have made plant identification so much easier, compared to a lot of my other books."

Bryon Steiner

Steiner Fine Art
Sacramento, California

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