The Ultimate Guide to Houseplant Identification

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Do you like houseplants and want to get some to liven up your home or office, but you're not sure what to buy? It isn't the fear of not knowing how to care for plants that can stop many people from getting them. It is usually the fear of not remembering what type of plant they are and not know how to identify them.

If you’re not sure what type of plants are in your friends’ homes but see one that you would like to get, this information can teach you about houseplant identification. Being able to identify plants can help you take care of them properly, so they can live and thrive in your care.

Houseplant Identification Basics

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If you’ve received a plant without a card before, it can be frustrating because you won’t know:

  • How much water it requires
  • How much sun it likes
  • The type of soil it should be in
  • What fertilizer it needs
  • Whether it requires pruning
  • What size pot it needs

Fortunately, by learning the basics of how to identify houseplants, you won’t need to get out your smartphone or use plant guides to find out its name. Most plants fit into these broad categories:

  • Small Trees
  • Cacti
  • Succulents
  • Vines
  • Ferns
  • Orchids
  • Other herbaceous plants

Each of these plant categories has subcategories for the different varieties of plants in each category. For instance, under small trees, there are Ficus, Parlor Palm, Dracaena, and several others. Also, if you’re not sure what herbaceous means, it refers to houseplants that are not woody, but have soft, green stems. These plants can grow and produce flowers or seeds quickly.  

Most houseplants are the same throughout the world, so once you can distinguish some of the most common plants, you may see them on trips you take to other countries. Along with knowing how to care for them, you won’t need to learn different species of houseplants that are native to the country that you’re visiting.

Plant Characteristics 

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To start classifying plants, look at their characteristics when you spot one at the store or a friend's house. Some of their features include:

  • The color of the plant and leaves.
  • The texture of the leaves.
  • The shape of its flowers.
  • The shape of its leaves.
  • Whether it has vines or stems.
  • The color of the flower.
  • Patterns on the leaves.

While most plants come in various shades of green, they can also have other colors on or underneath the leaves. The shapes of leaves may be long and narrow, broad, heart-shape, or other. The various textures may be waxy, soft, fuzzy, or prickly. There are many ways to identify houseplant characteristics, and knowing the basic ones can help narrow down the type of plant. 

When you recognize a plant’s characteristics, the easiest way to begin to identify the plant is to use the internet. In your web browser, type in a few of its identifiers and enter them in a search. The search results can narrow down the category of plant, and with more information, you can usually find the one for which you’re searching.

Try typing in “vine, heart-shape leaves, dark green, waxy leaves.” After inputting these identifying terms, the results may show plants like:

  • Ivy
  • Nephthytis
  • Pothos
  • Sweetheart Plant (Philodendron) 
  • Hoya

There will be many other results, including the sweet potato plant for outdoor gardeners, but once you see pictures of the plants, you can narrow the features further. Instead of saying it has heart-shaped leaves, describe them as large or small heart-shaped leaves depending on their size. Instead of "a vine," input "twisted vine” if the shape twist or it twists together with another vine. 

Being more accurate with your description can narrow down what type of houseplant it is faster. So, instead of our previous description, type “twisted vine, large heart-shaped leaves, dark-green, waxy leaves, houseplant.” Adding “houseplant” after the identifying terms will ensure you’re looking up houseplants and not outdoor plant varieties.

The results for this search quickly brings up both the Philodendron and Hoya plants. If you input straight vines instead of twisted, the Pothos plants and Philodendrons come up again, along with the Wandering Jew plant. This reason is why it's essential to look at the image on the screen.  

If a Philodendron comes up for your description, notice the shape of the leaves. They may not be heart-shape. The heart-shaped leaf has a petiole, which is the part of the plant that connects the leaf to the stem. The petiole grows from the dip, or cleft, of the leaf, which is in the middle of it. The petiole also divides the leaf into two symmetrical sides that form the shape.  

Leaf Shapes

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Whether it’s an indoor or outdoor plant, knowing the names of the leaf shapes will help you tell its species or variety. Instead of being a heart-shape leaf, it's is a cordate shape. Here are some other common shapes for leaves:

  • Oval – This shape has the petiole on the rounded end, and it comes to a point at the opposite end.
  • Lanceolate – It has an oval shape, but it is a long, thin leaf with serrated edges.
  • Cordate – These leaves are a heart-shape with the petioles in the clefts of the leaves. However, sometimes, the cleft doesn't always dip very far.
  • Obcordate – This leaf is an upside-down heart with the petiole connecting the leaf to the stem at its point.
  • Elliptical – An elliptical leaf has two symmetrical, parallel margins with points at both ends and a petiole that connects the leaf to the stem at one of the points.
  • Linear – This leaf has parallel margins with a thin, elongated shape.
  • Spatulate – These leaves resemble spoons with the petiole in place of the “handle.”
  • Palmate – These leaves look like hands with prongs for fingers.
  • Pedate – This is a palmate leaf with lateral, divided lobes or spreads apart fingers.
  • Peltate – The petioles have a central location on the leaves

There are more leaf shapes than just these 10 for indoor plants. You’ll be able to find charts for both indoor and outdoor plants, as well as tree leaves, online. 

Flower Shapes

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Many indoor plants, such as ornamental plants like the Begonias, will bloom if they are tended to properly. The flowers they produce come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Recognizing their colors and shapes can help with houseplant identification, so you can find out how to care for them. Some of the typical flower shapes include:

  • Trumpet - This shape looks like the speaker of an old Victrola. The blooms are long, cylindrical shapes. When they open, the ends of the flowers curl back to reveal the stigma and stamen.
  • ConeThis shape is also long and cylindrical, but they may or may not have petals surrounding the stigma and stamen.
  • CruciformThese flowers have four petals that grow from the petiole and open to reveal the stigma and stamen. The shape reminds some of the Christian cross, from which it gets its name.
  • RotateThe petals form a round shape, and they are un-fused, meaning they do not connect.
  • CampanulateThe blooms takes the shape of bells and points down instead of standing up.
  • Ligulate These blooms open to reveal a center with tiny stamen and the small oblong petals stack around the center. However, the petals are not fused so that they pluck out individually. The best example of a ligulate-shaped flower is the daisy.
  • Stellate  Flowers of this type look almost like stars. They often have six petals that open outward to reveal the stigma.
  • Saccate These flowers have green buds that form around a tight sac of colorful petals that will slowly open to the sun as they mature. The best example of this flower shape is roses.

Many other flower shapes can help distinguish houseplants. Along with knowing flower shapes, it also helps to know their color or the patterns on the leaves.

Color and Patterns

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There are two ways to use color to identify plants. First, name the color on leaves and flowers if the plant has them. Then, double-check the color of the plant's veins, the size of the leaves or stems, and their odor to determine which variety of the plant that you’re examining. 

Some species of plants have multiple varieties, and to tell them apart, you need to examine the color of the plant’s veins, the size of the leaves, or the patterns on the plant. For instance, ivy plants, which usually refer to Hedera helix or English Ivy, have different varieties. 

You may come across Persian or Algerian ivies that have leaves that can grow as long as eight inches. There is also an Irish ivy that looks just like the English ivy, but they have a subtle difference. If you carefully examine the plant, you'll notice the veins, which are most noticeable on the leaves, of the English Ivy, are white, but the veins of the Irish ivy are green.

Irish ivy, also known as Atlantic ivy or Hedera Hibernica, leaves also grow more prominent, or broader, than those of the English ivy. Their smell is slightly different, as well. Where the English ivy smells a bit musty, the Irish ivy has a sweeter odor.

Patterns

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The leaves of a plant can be colorful or have distinct patterns that help identify them. For instance, when putting search terms into a web browser, you should also include any patterns that you see on the leaves. 

For instance, some green leaves will have what looks like paint splatters on them that are yellow or white. This pattern can help pinpoint the variety of plant species. An example is the Dragon Tree, which is in the Agave family. It has slender, blade-like leaves with colors varying from a deep green to variegated green, yellow, and red. The tip of the leaves may also be red.

Another member of the Agave family, the Mother-in-Law Tongue, has leaves that stand straight, and which are green in the center with a band that looks whitish or yellowish along the outside edges. The green center may also have a striped pattern that is reminiscent of tiger stripes. 

Use as many descriptive words as you can when starting an online search to discover a plant's species or variety. It will help narrow down the search for the plant faster. 

Identifying Pothos Plants


Another plant that is frequently found growing in houses is the Pothos plant. It is easy to grow, and it has vines and waxy, heart-shaped leaves. The plant also comes in at least six varieties, if not more. The most common types of Pothos’ are:

  • Golden PothosThis is the most common variety of the pothos plant available in stores. They have slightly spotted green leaves that have a golden hue.
  • Jade PothosThis variety is like the Golden pothos but with solid green leaves.
  • Marble Queen Pothos The Marble Queen variety is similar to the Golden pothos, but speckles of white, and it grows slowly.
  • Silver PothosThis plant has dark, satiny leaves in green with silver spots. It is sometimes called Satin or Silk Pothos or Silver Philodendron.
  • Neon PothosThe Neon pothos is easy to spot because it has solid neon green leaves.

How to Distinguish Pothos Plants from Philodendrons

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When you have two species of plants that look alike, as in the case of the Philodendron and Pothos, how do you tell them apart? One way is to scrutinize their characteristics. While the vining Philodendron does resemble a Pothos, its leaves are not waxy in appearance, and the heart=shape leaves form into flexible stems.

Along with waxy-looking leaves, which are larger than the Philodendron leaves, the Pothos plant has leaves with white, yellow, or gold splatters on them. Some will also have silver markings on leaves that are also heart-shape.

Along with having similar appearances, these two plants also require the same type of care. So, if you have two plants of different species that look alike, you should check their characteristics to tell them apart. Also, search to find out if they need similar care as well. Grouping plants together by their needs can make it easier on you to water, put them in sunlight, and feed them when it is necessary. 

Once you know the trick to houseplant identification, which is to examine their characteristics and note their differences, you will be able to start telling plants apart. Then you can feel confident buying them in stores when they don’t have an identifying card attached to them.

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