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Identifying Plants While Hiking: Botany For Hikers

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.

But 1st you need at least a tiny bit of motivation.

Like being stuck in the woods for a few days without food, perhaps?

As 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 for Mother's Day),
  • Trout lilies (speckled leaves, just like the flanks of a trout and lots of pollen to play with).

But it wasn't until I moved to the Pacific NW that my curiosity exploded.

The mountains have waves of beautiful alpine flowers:

  • early bloomers (avalanche and glacier lilies),
  • spring flowers,
  • high summer bloomers like lupine, and
  • the fall glories.
Gradually 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.


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:

Wildflowers of North America: A Guide to Field Identification (Golden Field Guides)
Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
Field Guide to the Cascades & Olympics
Wild Plants of Greater Seattle : 2nd Edition

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

This 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, or
  • 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:
best websites

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.



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!

Treasures of the trail - beautiful alpine flowers!

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Identifying Plants While Hiking

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