What Is That Plant?

— Written By and last updated by Tamara Carawan
en Español / em Português

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screenshot of plant toolbox website page

Mystery plants are a common topic within the Extension office as homeowners investigate the numerous plants that occur on their property. While there are thousands of plants that are common to our landscape, we occasionally find some new arrivals, some invasives that would benefit from removal, and plants that are just unique. If you would like to learn more about plant identification, below are a few resources that can assist you with this effort.

The NC State Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox is one of the best resources for identifying and selecting plants for local landscapes. From thousands of plants contained within this database, homeowners can browse photos, descriptions, videos, and even garden designs to evaluate different planting materials for their property. This database is a great way to select plants that meet your specific growing criteria, helping to promote sustainable landscapes with the proper plant in the proper place. Database filters can narrow down plants to growing regions and climates, sun and shade, wet and dry, flower season and color, and even wildlife value. This database also contains a “Find a Plant” search function that utilizes filters to narrow down the list of plants based upon their physical characteristics. This means you can identify plants based on their leaf, flower, stem, fruits and general growth habits to help solve the identity of your mystery plants.

screenshot of herbarium website

NC State Extension also houses an Herbarium on the campus of NC State University that specializes in plant identification and taxonomy (plant classification and study). The local Extension office can assist your with submitting photos and physical samples of plant material to the herbarium for proper identification. When collecting samples for identification it is important to have as much detail as possible. This would include photos of the plants from a standing distance (see the entire plant), with closer photos clearly showing identifiable features such as leaf shape and arrangement, flowers and their various parts, stems and bark, and general descriptions of where the plants are found (planted landscape, natural areas, county, age, etc.).

Screenshot of Buy a Plant-NC Landscape Association

Another common question that follows plant identification is where can I purchase a plant. While there are numerous local nurseries that can assist with these efforts, you might also consult the NC Nursery and Landscape Association “Buy a Plant” website. Through this website you can search for planting material available through a nationwide database of nurserymen. Your local nurseryman may also be able to connect you with planting material through this network, so stop by and discuss your needs with your favorite nursery location.

If you would like more information on plant identification and have a mystery plant in need of investigation, please contact Daniel Simpson at 252-745-4121 or daniel_simpson@ncsu.edu.