Wintertime Plant ID

I feel grateful to live in a place with all four seasons. It is a miraculous thing to watch the changing colors of fall leaves, wake to snow quietly blanketing the valley, or see the first shoots of green in the spring.

At heart, though, I am a summer girl. I absolutely adore plants and gardening. I make my living teaching people about medicinal herbs and they are one of my deepest passions.

This makes fall a bittersweet time of year for me, and by winter, I am yearning for The Green. Over the years, as I have hiked or skied many a winter trail, I have enjoyed trying to ID plants in the wintertime. While evergreens such as Oregon grape, uva ursi or conifer trees are easy to identify, many deciduous plants can be identified if you look closely.

Wintertime plant ID has helped me notice other details about plants that I tend not to notice in the summer. Noticing a plant in the winter makes it easier to recognize plants in the early spring as well. This can help with foraging spring greens and planning for summertime harvesting spots.

In general, annual plants (plants with a life cycle that lasts a single year, or season) leave less trace than many perennials. Both biennials, which have a two year life cycle, and perennials, that grow for more than two years, tend to have more substantial parts to recognize over the winter months. I’m amazed how often I will see small green leaves around the base of a perennial plant in the winter. Many plants that are not considered evergreen will never the less do this. Sometimes I will even dig down into the snow and see new green leaves, a sure sign to me of the optimism and tenacity of our plant friends.

Some key things to look for:

There are many other details we use to accurately determine the genus and species of a plant, but the points below are some of the key features I look for in the winter. To make sure you have an accurate ID, it is always best to go back and make a proper identification in the summer.

Ecology: Where the plant is growing can help you narrow down possible species. Questions to ask include:

  • Where is the plant growing and what is around it?
  • Are there other plants that you commonly see with it?
  • Does it thrive in the mountains, by meadows, along a river, in a forest, on a hill?
  • Does it like a wet or dry environment?
  • Does it prefer the open areas, or need the shade of other plants or trees?

General form:

  • What is the plants size and shape?
  • How large does it grow?
  • Is it a tree, shrub, vine, grass, herbaceous?
  • Is there a stray leaf or two still hanging on the plant, or around the base that will help you with identification?
  • Can you feel the texture of a leaf (hairy, smooth, prickly)?

Flower or Seed Heads:

  • Can you see any dried flower heads or seed heads?
  • Are the flowers or seeds singular or in clusters?
  • Are the flower heads composite (one flower head containing many small flowers: think sunflower)?
  • Do the flowers spread from a common point, somewhat like an umbrella (Think wild carrot)?
  • Do the seeds have hairs? Wings? Patterns? A shell?


  • If there are smaller stems off of a main stem, are they opposite each other, or do they alternate up the stem?
  • Does the plant have a square or round shaped stem?
  • Does the plant have thorns?
  • Are the stems woody?
  • Does the plant have a particular color?

Fruits or Cones:

  • Look on and around the plant for fallen seeds, fruits, nuts, shells or cones.
  • Note the color, size, texture.

Wintertime plant ID helps us learn more about plants and is a valuable way to hone your herbalist skills and stay connected to The Green through the winter months.

© Elaine Sheff, Clinical Herbalist 2017

About the Author:
The author of several books on herbal medicine and healing, clinical herbalist Elaine Sheff has been passionate about sharing herbal knowledge for over 25 years. Her latest book is Naked: Botanical Recipes for Vibrant Skin and Healthy Hair. Elaine is the Co-Director of Green Path Herb School, located in Missoula, MT, where she strives to inspire and empower students and clients to remember their connection to the earth, the plants and their own healing process. She has taught both nationally and internationally at conferences and events. Elaine is a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild. As a certified Instructor of the Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness Methods, Elaine has helped many couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy naturally. An artist and writer, Elaine has written numerous articles about her family’s journey with epilepsy and a special needs child. She has written for publications including the Journal of Medicinal Plants and their Applications, Mamalode and Aromaculture magazine. Elaine’s workshops have been featured at conferences including the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, Montana Herb Gathering, Northwest Herb Symposium, Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, Spokane Herbal Faire, the Ecoexpo, Mountain West Herb Gathering, Inland Northwest Permaculture Convergence, and the Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference. You can often find her bent over an herb in her garden or marveling at small flowers in mountain meadows with her husband and sons. If you’d like to learn more about medicinal plants, you can connect with Elaine, and Green Path Herb School via the Green Path Website or through social media: Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, or Instagram. You can find out more about Elaine and her life work at

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One Comment on “Wintertime Plant ID

  1. Your articles are awesome…informative and beautifully done.

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