Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Learn to identify plants at Wildflower Center class

Carolyn Lindell Special to the American-Statesman
Karen Clary teachers a class about plant identification at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. [Contributed by Carolyn Lindell]

OK, garden detectives. Plants offer lots of clues to help identify them and their various characteristics.

“All plants have unique parts that can be used to identify them,” says botanist Karen Clary. She recently led a three-hour Plant ID Walk and Learn class at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

“It’s more about giving people the foundation to learn more about a plant,” Clary says. “People can see how all this relates to identifying a plant.”

>> RELATED: How to get rid of mosquitoes in the yard

Reassuring class members that the basics of plant identification are not too difficult, she says if you can remember any three unique characteristics about a plant, “you can identify it,” either from the flower or vegetative parts (such as leaves, stems and roots). “It’s important to learn the green vegetative parts as well as the flower so you know what you are looking at,” she says.

Clary touched lightly on an array of topics relating to plant identification while making the detailed information understandable for her audience. She pointed out that “most of the plants that people see today can be divided into angiosperms and gymnosperms.”

Angiosperms have flowers, Clary says, to attract pollinators such as bees.

“That’s why they are so pretty. They’re not pretty for us. They’re pretty for the pollinators,” says Clary, who formerly worked at the Wildflower Center overseeing its native plant conservation program.

Angiosperms can be further separated into monocots and dicots. “In every seed is a seed leaf; it’s the first leaf that sprouts when it comes out,” she says.

Monocots — such as grasses, lilies and orchids— have only one “seed leaf” when they sprout, Clary says.

The flower parts (such as petals, sepals and stamens) of monocots come in multiples of three, she says. For example, the lily is a monocot, she says.

Dicots have two seed leaves when they sprout, and the flower parts come in multiples of four or five, she says.

Determining whether a plant is a monocot or dicot can be simple because plants “are incredibly consistent,” Clary says.

There are multiple ways to help onlookers figure it out. For example, a monocot’s leaves have parallel veins, such as in a grass blade, she says; however, the dicot leaves have “much more intricate” vein arrangements.

Another big clue is that dicots “usually have a visible midvein,” up the middle of the leaf, she says.

As an example, she says, agaves have leaves with parallel veins and it has flower parts in sixes, “so that’s a monocot.”

Observers can also look on the flowering part of a plant to check for the ovary position, whether it is in a superior, inferior or half-inferior position.

“The ovary position is really helpful in plant taxonomy,” Clary says.

She says that every flower, except a few, has a stamen (male parts) and/or ovaries (female parts). “Sometimes you have male and female parts on the same flower," she says. This is called a "perfect flower,” because it has both sexes on it.

>> RECREATION: Ready for a paddleboard challenge? Get off the flat water

People have been naming plants for a long time, but as more information becomes available, such as plant DNA, “their scientific name keeps changing,” she says. Through DNA, botanists can determine a plant’s true evolution, and a lot of plants that we thought were related because they look alike actually aren't, she adds.

Plants can also be identified by the basic flower and leaf shapes, she says. “We usually look at the symmetry,” she says. They can have radial symmetry or bilateral symmetry.

With radial symmetry, “every way you cut it (in half), you would get a mirror image,” she says. With bilateral symmetry, though, the flower will not always match if it is cut in half, only lengthwise.

Class members later took a walk around the Wildflower Center and used their new knowledge. Stopping to look at a native Texas palm, Clary says, “The veins are parallel. … This should be a no-brainer.” It’s a monocot.

In addition, using magnifying glasses and plant guides, class members examined some plant cuttings to glean information about them.

Among many other things, the info-packed class covered leaf arrangement and plant nomenclature.

Overall, Clary recommended using the Wildflower Center’s Native Plants Database, as well as a U.S. Department of Agriculture site at

“This website has got everything on it,” she says.

The class drew about 12 participants, including a few couples, who traveled from around Temple and Dallas to attend.

Chelsea Cornwall, 11, says she went to the class because “I like flowers.” Her mother, Miryam Cornwall, says Clary had effectively included “hands-on” learning in the class. “That helps,” she says.

Sharen Bates says she took the class because “I love wildflowers, and I love to know what the wildflowers are.” She also enjoys teaching her granddaughter about wildflowers — even making a picture book about them.

“It spurred me to want to know more,” Bates says.

Clary, who now volunteers at the center, usually teaches this $35 class in the spring and the fall. (Members of the Wildflower Center receive a discount on classes and programs.)

The Plant ID Walk and Learn class is well-liked among participants, with a maximum capacity of 16, Clary says.

The Wildflower Center also offers various other classes and programs throughout the year; education is part of the center's core mission.

For more information about other events and more, check