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:
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.
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.
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Shannon Valle said:
Hi, thank you for sharing this article. This is a great starting place. When I was younger I learned about herbs from a male healer who was Comanche/Yoeme. He taught me a little bit but it was typically based on who was sick at the time and what herbs or other healing means were needed to assist the person with their healing. My native traditions and my own connection taught me to respect and address plants as medicine people and as relations. I was in my early 20’s when I really began to listen to the herbs but quickly moved away from the “responsibility” or relationship w/ herbs as I started to have children–5 lovely beings. The deep urge to reconnect with the herbs has arisen yet I needed a starting point. So thank you for offering a starting point. I very much look forward to exploring your blog site. Blessings, Shannon