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Identifying Plants While Hiking: Botany For Hikers

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her’s Diane

Identifying plants while hiking – sounds boring?

Or impossible?

Botany for hikers can be somewhere in between.

I’m here to tell you that you can easily learn over 100 plants, by breaking the process down into a simple stepwise approach.

Childhood interest, or adult hobby

You’ll need a bit of motivation, of course.

Mine started in childhood.

a kid knocking around in the woods in the upper peninsula of Michigan
(United States), I learned a few plant names, mostly because they were
unusual or useful:

  • Dutchman’s britches (the flowers really look like little pairs of bloomers)
  • Bloodroot (we painted each other’s faces with the red fluid from the stems)
  • Trillium (gorgeous white lilies with extravagant green leaves, which I brought to my mother every year on Mother’s Day)
  • Trout lilies (speckled leaves, just like the flanks of a trout and lots of pollen to smear on everything)

But then…

I moved to the Pacific NW and my curiosity about wild plants exploded.

The mountains have waves of beautiful alpine flowers:

  • early bloomers (avalanche and glacier lilies poking through snow)
  • spring flowers abuzz with hungry pollinators
  • high summer bloomers like lupine that perfumed the air
  • the fall glories of asters and sedums

over the seasons I began to pick up a few names here, a few there,
until it dawned on me that I should be doing a more thorough job of
knowing my “neighbors” as I was hiking.

What if I needed them to get through an emergency bivouac in the woods?

Plus, who wouldn’t be curious about a plant that can do this?? (glacier lily)

Bright yellow glacier lilies poking up through snowIdentifying plants while hiking can bring a whole new dimension to trail time.

Can you relate?

So if you can relate to this hunger to know the names of the plants you see while hiking, here’s a plan.

Hit the book store to get comfortable
with identifying plants while hiking

I started out by visiting the local bookstore, and haven’t looked back since.

Here’s how
my Botany bookshelf today helps me with identifying plants while hiking:

Field Guide to the Cascades & Olympics

Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West

Wild Plants of Greater Seattle : 2nd Edition

This book is a great resource for
identifying plants while hiking

And here’s my personal favorite: Botany in a Day (The Patterns Method of Plant Identification) by Thomas J Elpel.

one is applicable to the entire United States, with different levels of
reliability (a map is included, so you’ll know how much confidence to
place in the book).

Currently, I’m testing my ability to identify plants while hiking by placing each flowering plant into the monocot or dicot division, and then go on to see if it fits into 1 of 7 families:

  • mustard
  • mint
  • parsley
  • pea
  • lily
  • mallow
  • aster

That’s Elpel’s approach, and I’m having lots of fun with it.

It’s remarkably easy to figure out patterns in leaf shape, petal arrangements … so to figure out what the heck a monocot is, I highly recommend his book!

Botany in a Day: Thomas J. Elpel’s Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families, 4th Ed.

 More botany resources:

There are great websites with color photos that you can study, too.

Not as handy as a portable field guide, but definitely useful to compare your photos with after your hike.

A few field resources you might like
to add to your backpack

There are three small items that make my hiking botanizing much more pleasurable. Here they are:

Happy plant identifying!

I’ll be posting wildflower photos as they become available throughout the hiking seasons.

So check back often.

Or jump over to my Pinterest page to see some North American alpine flower photos taken by my husband and hiking partner, David Midkiff.

Thanks for visiting today!

Bright yellow flower petals and deep orange centers on fleabane flowers along a hiking trailTreasures of the trail – beautiful alpine flowers!

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Identifying Plants While Hiking

About the author

Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.

She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.

Hiking For Her: Hiking tips you can trust!

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