Learning to Identify Plants is a Worthy Skill

Plants are around us no matter where you live. I am challenged with plant identification as an agriculturalist and enjoy learning to identify plants that are not in production agriculture, too.

A week ago, I was with an Extension Educator and a producer to confirm weeds of concern in a pasture; we then were able to discuss best control options. An email request, including pictures, from a hay producer was shared this week with me. Undesired plants of yellow foxtail, barnyardgrass, and crabgrass were noted and one photo had horsenettle in it, a spreading broadleaf plant that has toxic properties.

Too many of us learned how to identify poison ivy from the unfortunate contact we had with it on a hike or learned how to identify it from someone else that felt itchy discomfort. Some individuals have taken an interest in foraging out food resources in the great outdoors. They took time to learn what was edible, would cause a stomach ache, or even death if a plant or parts of a plant made it to their mouths and swallowed. One cannot be most effective in controlling a pesky plant in a field where there are desirable plants without identifying the pesky plant. Can the problematic plant be controlled with cultivation, or crowded out with proper fertilization and reduced grazing pressure? What herbicides will best control the weed without doing harm to the desired plants?

Early in my career, I would identify plants with library-type books, field guides and plant identification keys. I have great respect for individuals that develop identification keys as they are extremely detailed about shape and size of plant parts and have a hierarchical format. When using a key, it is imperative that you learn plant morphology terms first or the key will have no value. Decades later, I still find these resource materials useful but there are abundant online resources and a few great apps that can help narrow down what the plant in question may be.

At the Purdue University Crop Diagnostic Training and Research Center there are over 40 large tile rings planted singly to common Midwest USA forages. Most impressive are the over 300 tile rings (by my guesstimate) that have a weedy-type plant in each ring. The hours of time taken by Diagnostic Training Center staff to manage the plants in the rings in a year are many; the value the rings give helping educate agriculturalists, novices or long time, about plant identification and management is immense. A toxic plant identification area is in the planning phase and will be placed near the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at the Southern Indiana Purdue Agricultural Center. Identification of a plant in that upcoming resource just might save livestock for individuals that take time to learn what the plants are and follow through with control measures.

Purdue DTC

Many forage species at the Purdue University Crop Diagnostic Training and Research Center are used for identification education.

Purdue DTC class

Dr. Ron Lemenager discusses with many of his Purdue University beef management class how to identify tall fescue and the attributes it has as a forage for beef cattle at the Purdue University Crop and Plant Diagnostic Training Center.

scouting competition

A team from Nebraska participating in the Regional High School Crop Scouting Competition takes on the challenge of identifying forages at the Purdue University Crop Diagnostic Training and Research Center.

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