Botany in a Day

Today, I want to highlight a book in my arsenal. However, I don’t pick it up often enough. Add botany to my list of things I want to learn better. I mostly use this as a reference, but it really is also a teaching tool. Botany, simplified.

The full title of the book is Botany in a Day, The Pattern Method of Plant Identification, by Thomas J. Elpel. A second subtitle at the bottom of the cover reads An Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America.

I have lots of foraging books, too. If the food supply ever dwindles, color me all set (although I did feel more “all set” back in Princeton, when I was growing my own food). I dive into those books if I’m curious about whether or not a plant is edible. There is a fascinating and long section on acorns in one of them, which are edible, but you have to do some leaching of them in a multi-step process to get rid of the bitter tannins. And even then, I don’t think they taste very good (I gathered acorns one year but never got to the processing of them to confirm that). But, if you’re hungry, you’re hungry and these could be a decent source of food because they sure are plentiful in Massachusetts. I went looking for an article I could link to about this and instead found this amusing video, which I hope you can see as you are reading this (links do get broken on a website over time). Your other alternative is to go straight to the source, Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden book. Side note, as I went to his site to get the link for his book, I wound up buying his Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern & Central North America. My friend has it, and it is a much more concise book than his others. I think I’m going to start carrying with me as I explore the plants around me in my new location.

Okay, back to botany. But, foraging is deeply connected to botany because botanical characteristics are how you identify a plant.

Back when I was on Facebook, I would see people ask, “What is this plant in my yard?” And the answers were all over the place. Some people don’t have innate powers of observation (but they can learn them!), which is a key principle of Permaculture, by the way. All of this stuff is connected, and I love it! I am a student of nature. And I pay attention to detail.

This botany book identifies patterns of plant families. Plant families can be broad. Take, for instance, the mint family, or Lamiaceae. This family includes many of the major herbs we eat aside from traditional mint—basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage. The mint family even includes lavender. It’s my favorite botanical family. There is so much medicinal goodness in it.

Motherwort, a member of the mint family.

Early on, and probably from this book years ago, I learned that a common botanical characteristic of mints is that they have square stalks. On top of that, according to this book, they have opposite leaves and are usually aromatic. This, dear friends, is a pattern you can use to identify members of the mint family. Try it. It’s fun! But don’t go eating the leaves if you don’t know the plant. Pennyroyal, a member of the mint family, is toxic. (Most mints are edible, however.) The featured photo at the top of this post and repeated directly above so you can see the whole image, is from Elpel’s book, and below the photo in the book there is additional information to help you learn more about this family. Each family in the reference guide portion of the book (the bulk of it) follows this format, although some families don’t span a whole page, and some span more than one page. There are also smaller sections in the book on general botany and the medicinal properties of plants. It’s really a great reference book and jumpstart on learning botany. I highly recommend adding this book to your library. It also has plenty of color photos, even though this one I show isn’t one of them. The mint family in this book has two additional pages of information, however, one a page of colored photos of a variety of mint plants, and the other a list of the edible and medicinal properties of a whole bunch of mints. Some mints you might not realize are mints are Ground Ivy (a.k.a Creeping Charlie), Giant (Anise) Hyssop, Lemon Balm, Monarda (Bee Balm), Motherwort, and Horehound. It’s interesting, because a lot of mints also spread like a bugger and I know this because I had them in my yard. Most of them spread via the roots but Hyssop and Motherwort seem to spread via their seeds because those plants popped up all over the place.

Nettle, on the other hand, is a member of the Urticaceae family and also has square stems and opposite leaves, like mint. The flowers occur at the juncture of the leaves and stem, like mint. Just to add some confusion. But this book describes the flowers as petalless (that’s a new one on me, because I thought they were just smaller, petaled flowers that were hard to see). However, the non-Latin family name of this family is Stinging Nettle, and you can’t miss that characteristic of the plant!

An example from my closeup lens of a dandelion flower. I never knew dandelions had curlicues!

I just had a thought that I’m going to start bringing my macro lens (which fits on my phone) with me if I start studing botany/foraging, so I can take closeup shots of these plants. This might be a fun project! Oh, look, I put something else on my todo list…

Back to the topic I brought up earlier—observation. Identifying a plant is all about observation using botanical classifications. However, even if you don’t know botany, you can still ID a plant. Don’t just look at one thing – oh, those flowers, I know a plant like that, it must be a [fill in the blank]. Yes, but do the leaves look like that plant you are familiar with? I would find misidentification like that with the people answering what-is-this-plant questions. You have to look at the whole plant, not just one part of it. I also believe you can use intuition, but intuition isn’t just guesswork, it usually comes from things you have learned or assimilated in the past. And, some people believe that humans carry intuitive knowledge through generations. Intuition is deep knowing. So, keep looking, learning, and observing plants, and you will find your knowledge growing to the point where you can help other people ID plants. This ID skill is critical when harvesting plants for medicine. And, I always say, don’t ingest a plant unless you are 200% sure you know what it is. There are plants I am pretty sure I know, but I sometimes get a nagging feeling that I’m missing something as I look at that plant. The plant might very well be what I thought it was, but in certain stages of growth might be harder to identify. So I will pass over it. To me, intuition is a key component of my plant journey. And I trust it because it hasn’t served me wrong, yet. (I also think it helps that I am a cautious, thoughtful, research-y person.)

Lastly, to cycle back to foraging, I see that the back of the book shows another of Elpel’s books, Foraging the Mountain West. It might be a nice companion to Thayer’s books or in place of them if you just want to focus on that area of the country. In reading Elpel’s bio on Amazon, I see that he’s a huge wilderness guy, with his love of nature and the wild instilled in him by his grandmother!


If you have this book, are interested in foraging or botany, have any advice on identifying plants, OR HAVE EVER EATEN ACORNS, please comment below and share your knowledge.

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