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Thread: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

  1. #1
    sea witch thalassa's Avatar
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    Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    The First Thing You Need (an article)
    The First Thing You Need

    Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    STOP! Before you do anything, before we go any further, before I wax poetic about the worship of Nature and reverence for the Earth, before we discuss meditations on plants, before we talk correspondences or magickal properties. Before any of that, there is one thing you need, and some skills you must learn. This is for your own and Nature’s safety. The thing you need is a field guide, and one of the skills is how to use a field guide. A field guide is often times the best first step towards the other skills you must learn; identifying and researching plants.

    Sounds terribly boring, doesn’t it? It’s natural to want to jump right in, making incense, collecting plant totems, hugging trees, walking through the forest barefoot. But what if it turns out the incense irritates your lungs? What if the plant you cut to make your totem was not the plant you thought it was? What if the tree you hugged produces oil that irritates your skin? What if, while walking barefoot through the woods, you step on some poison ivy?

    Before we talk the spirituality of a Nature Path, before we talk about Nature magick, let us talk practicality. You need to know how to identify plants and how to research them so that you do not end up accidentally poisoning yourself, or making everyone in a ritual circle cough up a lung.

    Many plants look very alike, and it is common for a harmless plant to look much like a dangerous one. Most plants have some sort of defensive mechanism, usually in the form of thorns, oils, poison and such. So before you touch a plant, you better make sure you know all about that plant!

    I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve come across someone who brought home a bunch of plant matter they bought or picked, brewed a tea and drank it… and wound up very ill. Plus, if you are planning on using plants for ritual and magickal purposes, you need to know the plants species and genus and such. There are plenty of plants that resemble one species but actually belong to another. I had a friend who made a wand out of what she thought was Alder; only for it to turn out it was made of Poplar. Oops!

    The best tools and skills any Nature loving witch could have is a field guide of plants, a working understanding of how to use one, and knowing how to identify and research a plant.

    Now, some of you may not know what a field guide is, so here is a definition courtesy of Wikipedia:

    Field Guide: A field guide is a book designed to help the reader identify wildlife (plants or animals) or other objects of natural occurrence (e.g. minerals). It is generally designed to be brought into the ‘field’ or local area where such objects exist to help distinguish between similar objects.

    It will typically include a description of the objects covered, together with paintings or photographs and an index. More serious and scientific field identification books will probably include identification keys to assist with identification, but the publicly-accessible field guide is more often a browsable picture guide organized by family, color, shape, location or other descriptors.

    For an online field guide, follow this link:

    http://www.enature.com/home/

    A field guide is a great way to know what grows where, what it looks like, when it blooms, how to tell it apart from other plants and many other useful tips. Field guides have photographs, drawn pictures, diagrams, maps, detailed descriptions and more to help you figure out what plants grow where, and makes it easy to identify each plant. Some field guides will even have practical and medicinal uses listed in them as well. If you always wondered if verbena or sage brush or any plant grows near where you live, this is the best way to find out.

    You can find a field guide at your local book store, usually for about 20 dollars or less. The MOST important thing about your field guide is that you have one that is appropriate for the region in which you live and can gather plants. The SECOND most important thing is that it is easy for you to use.

    Any book store in your area will have field guides for your area. Today there are field guides for all of North America; for just the eastern or western half; for specific states or provinces, and even for smaller geographic areas, such as counties, hiking trails, and specific refuges, parks, or preserves. For your first guide, I recommend getting one for as small an area as possible that is still where you live or where you can get to some nature. This will help you to avoid flipping through many pages of plants that grow more than a couple of hours drive from your home.

    If you live in the city, do not despair! Flipping through a field guide, you will see that many of the plants listed grow in the urban areas; such as in vacant lots, ditches, and “disturbed areas” – construction sites.

    Do not pick up a field guide more than 5 years old. With the genetic and advanced scientific testing available today, the older field guides have too many inaccuracies. The best field guides are put out by Peterson Field Guides and by The National Audubon Society, but there are many great field guides to be had. The ideal field guide is easy to use, portable, and accurate.

    When looking to buy a field guide, look for a book that feels easy to use. Flip through, if you can, and look at some of the identification keys (usually found in the front), the photographs, maps and descriptions of plants. Does it feel confusing or does it feel like you could figure out what kind of pine that tree in your back yard really is? Are the pictures, drawings and photographs clear and give you a good look at bark, flower, leaves and such? Is it written in a style that will be readable by you, or is a tad too scientific, or not scientific enough?

    Make sure the book you buy is also going to be easy to carry around. A big text book sized one will get heavy in your bag or pack after a while.

    For the purposes of a Nature witch, you will want a book that also has some practical and medicinal uses listed for each, or most, of the plants as well. Check to see if the book lists whether or not plants are edible or poisonous, you’ll want to know that.

    If you are having a hard time finding the herbs in any book, understand that most herbs, like mint for example, are classified as wildflowers.

    Get a book that is a “field guide for plants” if you can, as it will have trees, shrubs, herbs, wildflowers, mosses etc. If you cannot find one for all plants, then decide what kind of plant interests you the most. Do trees and shrubs call to you, or mosses and lichens? Are you more interested in herbs and wildflowers than ferns or fungi? How about cacti and succulents?

    There are many online field guides as well, use you search engine to find one for your area, or use the one above. Online field guides are great when you just do not have the money to buy a book. However you cannot take your computer into the field. It is a lot easier to put a book into your backpack.

    Once you have purchased your first field guide, it is time to try it out.

    Exercises:

    After purchasing your book, take the time to read through the introduction and sections at the front about your region and what kind of plant life can be found there. Spend some time looking at the maps. Now open up your journal or note book (or what works best for you. I recommend something that will go easily into your back pack along with the field guide. Something you do not mind getting a little muddy) and write in it what kind of plant life, climate and geography is prevalent in your area. Do you live in or near Alpine forest, plains and grasses, arid desert etc? What sort of plants live there? If you are in a plains area, you will be finding lots of grasses. If you live in an arid area, you will be finding plenty of cacti and succulents, and so on.

    One of the most important things about using your field guide is being familiar with its content and layout. When you have some spare time, flip through the guide and get to know where the mosses are, where the mint family is, where the roses are – so you can find them quickly when you need to look up a plant. If you already have certain favourite plants, now it the time to write down their page numbers, earmark their pages, or bookmark those pages in some fashion.

    Now go identify some plants! Start with some easy ones, like the tree in your back yard, the dandelions in the front yard, the cedar hedge that lines the parking lot at work, how about that weed with the funny shaped leaves that grows in the cracks of the sidewalk in front of your apartment building.

    DO NOT CUT OR PICK THE PLANT!!!! That is for another lesson.

    If you have a camera, you might want to take a picture of your newly identified plant. If you have any artistic abilities, you could sketch it. Using the Herbal Info Outline, start to write down the info you have gleaned on each plant from the field guide and from finding and studying it. Do not worry if you do not have much to write right away, and that some parts of the Outline will be left empty. Just leave yourself enough space to add more info later.

    If you wish to go a little further in depth, you can now research the plant online; try typing both common and scientific names into your search engine of choice. Watch for discrepancies between sites! Double check the info you find online with the info in the field guide. Use your brains and common sense when researching, especially online. If you really want to get good practise and good info on your identified plants, you can head over to the library and look them up in books from the botany and horticulture sections. Remember, the older a book on plant life is, the less accurate the info will be. Keep adding to your notes on the plant.

    Once you have a feel for your field guide and for identifying and finding info on plants, you can move on to actually gathering and using them.

    Juniper 2007

    This article may be reproduced, without changes and with author’s name. No changes, or money, may be made.

    from http://walkingthehedge.net/blog/2008...hing-you-need/
    “You have never answered but you did not need to. If I stand at the ocean I can hear you with your thousand voices. Sometimes you shout, hilarious laughter that taunts all questions. Other nights you are silent as death, a mirror in which the stars show themselves. Then I think you want to tell me something, but you never do. Of course I know I have written letters to no-one. But what if I find a trident tomorrow?" ~~Letters to Poseidon, Cees Nooteboom

    “We still carry this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a primal recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth. It is a felt reverence for all that exists. Once we bring this foundational quality into our consciousness, we will be able to respond to our present man-made crisis from a place of balance, in which our actions will be grounded in an attitude of respect for all of life. This is the nature of real sustainability.”
    ~~Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

    "We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes--one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way."
    ~~Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

    "Humans are not rational creatures. Now, logic and rationality are very helpful tools, but there’s also a place for embracing our subjectivity and thinking symbolically. Sometimes what our so-called higher thinking can’t or won’t see, our older, more primitive intuition will." John Beckett

    Pagan Devotionals, because the wind and the rain is our Bible

  2. #2
    306 Maria de Luna's Avatar
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    Is there a second lesson/article?

  3. #3
    sea witch thalassa's Avatar
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    Not from that author, and I sort of forgot about this thread, lol...I'll see what other goodies I can dig up.
    “You have never answered but you did not need to. If I stand at the ocean I can hear you with your thousand voices. Sometimes you shout, hilarious laughter that taunts all questions. Other nights you are silent as death, a mirror in which the stars show themselves. Then I think you want to tell me something, but you never do. Of course I know I have written letters to no-one. But what if I find a trident tomorrow?" ~~Letters to Poseidon, Cees Nooteboom

    “We still carry this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a primal recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth. It is a felt reverence for all that exists. Once we bring this foundational quality into our consciousness, we will be able to respond to our present man-made crisis from a place of balance, in which our actions will be grounded in an attitude of respect for all of life. This is the nature of real sustainability.”
    ~~Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

    "We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes--one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way."
    ~~Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

    "Humans are not rational creatures. Now, logic and rationality are very helpful tools, but there’s also a place for embracing our subjectivity and thinking symbolically. Sometimes what our so-called higher thinking can’t or won’t see, our older, more primitive intuition will." John Beckett

    Pagan Devotionals, because the wind and the rain is our Bible

  4. #4
    Silver Member Tylluan Penry's Avatar
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    Excellent post! Another thing - wash your hands afterwards. Just in case. People often forget that some of the most powerful poisons known to man are plant based. And even things that are edible can become toxic in certain circumstances.
    www.thewolfenhowlepress.com


    Phantom Turnips never die.... they just get stewed occasionally....

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    lady sings the blues DanieMarie's Avatar
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    I know that there are a few German members here...so I thought I'd throw out a recommendation. the Kosmos Naturführer guides are great for identifying European plants! I picked up one called "Essbare Wildkräuter und ihre giftigen Doppelgänger" (edible wild plants and their poisonous doppelgangers). I also got one about wild plants and berries. I've found them to be very helpful.

  6. #6
    Lilium of the Valley
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    Quote Originally Posted by DanieMarie View Post
    I know that there are a few German members here...so I thought I'd throw out a recommendation. the Kosmos Naturführer guides are great for identifying European plants! I picked up one called "Essbare Wildkräuter und ihre giftigen Doppelgänger" (edible wild plants and their poisonous doppelgangers). I also got one about wild plants and berries. I've found them to be very helpful.
    yes there are a few germans hurraaayyyyyy and i also got a good book home for these types of things....for european plants....its called "Alles ueber Heilpflanzen" von Ursel Buehring (buchverlag Ulmer).....(english: all about healing plants).....love the book, has the seasons for harvesting and everything. awesome book!!
    i will have to check out your recommendation!!

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    Banned! Thothur's Avatar
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    If you are looking to seriously identify plants, you'll need at least THREE reputable field guides. I'd recommend the Petersens field guild, 'Edible Wild Plants' by Dr. John Kallas, and one or both of the books by Samuel Thayer. All can be found with a simple net search.

    Also, if you truly are interested in plants, then check out the videos of folks who do it for a living. Do a search on Youtube for 'Eat the weeds' I think there are over 140 videos up there now. Also there is a main website that is a good place to start as there are over a thousand articles there on plants. They also have a forum where you can ask questions on and get answers to your unidentified plants. Most folks are pretty friendly there.

    If anyone happens to have any questions on plants, I'd be happy to help. I've been doing this quite a long time.

  8. #8
    lady sings the blues DanieMarie's Avatar
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    Yeah I also have multiple field guides and find it helpful. I find though that you need different ones for Europe, because most of the stuff in English searches and on YouTube is American. Sometimes, there are some crossovers, but some things just don't grow in North America :/

    I had much better luck when I decided to use German field guides. There's quite a bit of common ground between here and the U.K., but there's more of a culture of eating wild plants in Germany. Plus, since I'm in Germany, everything is totally local.

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    Cannibal Rights Activist Ophidia's Avatar
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    Another thing about 'plant identification'. Mushrooms and fungi are much harder for an unskilled person to identify. Many harmful mushrooms at varying stages of their life-cycle look just like harmless species (my favorite, the Destroying Angel, resembles a harmless puffball when it's young). Mushrooms and fungi will kill you a lot quicker than most misidentified plants. Don't be a novice mushroom picker - some extension offices for the Department of Agriculture or the Fish/Game/Wildlife department of your area may offer classes on mushroom picking, or visit a local mushroom-fanciers group before picking and eating anything you run across in the great outdoors.
    The forum member formerly known as perzephone. Or Perze. I've shed a skin.

  10. #10
    Member SilverSerenity's Avatar
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    Re: Basics of Identifying and Researching Plants

    UK-based people could try the "Collins Gem" (That's the publisher) series of books, which are handily pocket sized and good for a basic start. There's a different book for each of trees, wildflowers, fungi, herbs and spices etc.
    For a more in-depth/advanced guide with generally better photographs, try the "Collins Complete Guide to British Wild Flowers: A photographic guide to every common species"

    For alternatives, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) also do a "pocket nature" series - these include identification guides for birds, butterflies and moths, trees and shrubs, wildflowers, wildlife etc. However they also tend to cover species found in Northern Europe too (Similar climates, so not surprising) and not give huge amounts of detail beyond that needed for basic identification.

    These books won't tell you about culinary/herbal/witchcraft uses and are written with the purpose of educating people about conservation and identifying species, not to encourage you to go out picking rare plants. Personally I prefer the Collins series, but the RSPB series are also reasonable identification guides for the beginner. Prices are of the order of £10 and all these books are available on Amazon.co.uk

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