Identify Your Mystery Plants

When adding a plant to your garden, best practice includes knowing about the plant’s growing needs and mature size. Retail sources of plants should and usually do provide such basic facts on a label or catalog entry. The gardener could make do with that information or could dig a little deeper in a reference book like Sunset’s Western Garden Book, or through the growing riches of online resources

To learn more about a given plant, begin with the botanical name, which is the plant’s unique identifier. Common names might be helpful in finding a plant’s botanical name: some garden books will cross-reference common and botanical names, and a web search for a common name might turn up the botanical name. Another strategy, especially when acquiring a plant from another gardener, is to ask the donor or members of a local garden society that specializes in the plant of interest. The most dedicated gardeners often will come up with the correct name, but for those who will only hazard a guess, check the name with a reliable source.

On occasion when an unfamiliar plant lacks a name, there’s no one to ask, and your curiosity reigns, the Internet will save the day.

The Internet offers various online plant identification resources, but they are mostly automated operations and not very accurate. To be less than polite, some are outrageously bad and a waste of time.

One online plant identifier that works quite well and with impressive speed is the National Gardening Association’s Plant ID Forum. Its accuracy and efficiency are derived from the participation of actual living gardeners, rather than the current generation of computers. (A future machine might outperform all horticulturists in plant ID tasks, but it’s not here yet.)

I frequently need the name of unlabeled plants that I see in a private or public garden, or that I acquire at a garden exchange. A recent column (ongardening.com/?p=2925) included a photo of a mystery plant seen at a garden tour.

Firecracker Plant

Firecracker Plant

The Plant ID Forum quickly identified it as a Firecracker Plant (Russelia equisetiformis ), an impressive Mexican shrub with a specific name that compares it to the horsetail rush. My next step is to find a source for this plant.

At a local garden exchange, I acquired two small plants that were mysteries to me, so I sent photos to the Plant ID Forum.

Creeping Fucshia

Creeping Fucshia

I soon learned that one is a Creeping Fuchsia (Fuchsia procumbens) that is a New Zealand native, thought to be the world’s smallest fuchsia, and categorized as an endangered species due to habitat loss. Quite a discovery!

 

 

 

 

Young Peperomia Plant

Coin Leaf Peperomia

My other mystery plant from the garden exchange is a Coin Leaf Peperomia or Baby Rubber Plant (Peperomia polybotrya ‘Variegata’), which is native to the Andes Mountains of Peru. I learned that it’s primarily for its foliage, and thrives as a houseplant in indirect light.

 

 

 

Your plants need not be mysteries! Sign up for the Plant ID Forum, a free service of the National Gardening Association.  Once you have established this connection, explore the website’s several forums and other features. If you have gardening questions other than finding the name of a mystery plant, try the Ask a Question Forum, which is a fairly new feature of this site. It welcomes the full range of inquiries, from “there are no stupid questions” to “stump the experts.” It can be quite useful in broadening your gardening knowledge

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