Identifying plants that just appeared

As a professional a garden coach, designer and maintainer, I am frequently asked to identify plants that have ‘just appeared’ on a property. When unsure of an identity I grab a couple of photos and head for two websites, The Connecticut Botanical Society and Go Botany. I have yet to come away without a positive ID.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The most recent ‘mystery’ plant needing identification turned out to be Jimsonweed – aka thorn-apple – botanical name Datura stramonium, a herbaceous perennial considered invasive in Connecticut. I’ve seen this Datura, aka Jimsonweed, in two separate cultivated perennial gardens this year where it had never been spotted before.

With photos downloaded to the computer, it’s easy to compare the mystery plant to website photos. The Connecticut Botanical Society has a handy ‘by flower color’ search option in the Wildflower section. For this identification I looked through the pink and blue/purple selections.  Among the pink flower colors I noted the native wildflower, Swamp Rose-mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos or H. palustris) with somewhat similar flower structure but with very different leaves. There were no like flowers in the blue/purple section.

Further inquiry took me to Go Botany, a relatively new plant ID search feature of the New England Wild Flower Society. To ID plants click on Get Started in the Simple ID Key section, where your next choice is to look under Woody plants, Aquatic plants , Grass-like plants, Orchids and related plants, Ferns, or All other flowering non-woody plants. I followed All other flowering  non-woody plants then Other herbaceous flowering plants with alternate leaves.

Once individual plant photos upload simply scroll through the photos to find your plant, or narrow the selections down by answering questions about the New England state in which the plant was seen and then scroll through photos or further narrow the choices by answering questions regarding leaf type, flower petal color, leaf arrangement, and so forth.

Click on the name of your mystery plant for more information, then click on Go To Species Page for more in depth facts. My search took me here: Datura is native to tropical America but has colonized north to New England states. It is an annual, has night-opening flowers pollinated by Sphinx moths, and is poisonous. Fruit capsules have thorn-like defensive structures and split open to disperse ripened seeds.

With Go Botany identifying Datura stramonium as invasive I headed to the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group to see that the plant is indeed listed on the Connecticut Invasive Plant List.

Had each property owner not taken the time to ask for a positive identification the two Jimsonweeds could have flowered and set seed, further adding to the plant’s invasiveness. In our age of global commerce, plants are transported all over the world. Some become invasive in regions that have no natural predators or controls. Climate change is also contributing to regional shifts in plant growth.

Not all mystery plants end up being invasive. I recently used similar steps to identify the ‘just appeared’ woolsedge (Scirpus cyperinus) growing along the woodland edge of my yard. Because woolsedge is native to Connecticut I will let it set seed and, hopefully, will see more of it growing next year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the case of these two Jimsonweed volunteers,  both have been destroyed.

The seed of both the woolsedge and the jimsonweed may have come in via bird droppings or with the winds of Superstorm Sandy. I’ve often noticed mystery plants, insects and diseases show up the growing season following strong wind storms. Have you?

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10 comments for “Identifying plants that just appeared

  1. August 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    I suspected Datura. Great post, I really appreciate the tools and sites you suggested. You can never have enough resources when you are going through an exercise like this.

    • August 20, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      Thanks, Charlie. Datura must be more common in your part of the country?

  2. August 19, 2013 at 8:59 am

    I have used the resources you mention, and they really are invaluable. With a big untended sunny meadow growing all around our yard, there are plenty of plants that I want to identify. It’s a fun exercise, and I keep hoping to find a rare specimen of a horticultural wonder someday! Mostly I find invasives, sometimes other things, but it is always interesting to i.d. what is growing.

    • August 20, 2013 at 8:05 pm

      Laurrie, While on hikes I grab photos of plants I’m unable to positively identify. Cell phone cameras come in very handy for such things and make positive identification much easier … of course, having the Internet resources helps, too!

  3. August 20, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen jimsonweed so thanks for the ID. It certainly has interesting leaves, they look a bit like oakleaf hydrangea leaves. Thanks for the heads up on Go Botany, I’ve read about the site but never used it myself. It sounds like a great resource.

    • August 20, 2013 at 8:06 pm

      Debbie, the more I use Go Botany the easier it is to find what I’m looking for. Give it a try.

  4. Sue
    August 25, 2013 at 8:20 am

    While out on a walk down at the beach last week I found what I assumed was a wild Datura. It wasn’t flowering but I recognized the seedpods and leaves from the ornamental varieties I grow in my garden. The stems on the beach plant were reddish adding a nice contrast. Now you’ve got me wondering if that was Jimsonweed.

    • August 28, 2013 at 8:27 am

      Sue, Go Botany is a great resource for identifying your mystery beach plant.

  5. August 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful resources Joene. I’ve had all sorts of ‘just appeared’ plants this year and it’s always a bit of a wild goose chase trying to identify these things.

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