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Erica Wisner
Post     Subject: Children Book for identifying plants or "weeds"

I've heard good things about the "Herb Fairies" book and games, which are designed to teach edible / medicinal plants to children.
(Herbal medicine brings up the point that it's safest if parents are also interested; teaching your own kids is way different from teaching other people's kids, and the stakes are higher if the kids don't have informed parental supervision.)

I got long-winded again. Posting in case it's helpful:

General tips:
I agree that you want to research your local poisonous / nasty plants and teach them at the same time as you start teaching plant ID in general.
You can call local Poison Control, or the agricultural extension service (they often run the poison control hotline locally), to find out what outdoor plants are involved in any recorded poisonings locally.
They will give sweeping advice like "lock up your medicines, pets, and children, label all plants, and call Animal Control if anything alive strays into your yard."
I wish they wouldn't do this; very good and important advice (like keeping medications out of reach of children, or not using someone else's prescriptions even if you have the same symptoms) gets bundled up with paranoid or impossible advice (how exactly are you supposed to teach a 2 year old never to eat any part of a plant, when you presumably feed them vegetables, berries, etc?).

For Georgia, I found this resource:
Note that this list is way longer than it needs to be, as it covers plants which are poisonous to pets as well as people. They didn't mention garlic, raisins, or chocolate (toxic to dogs in large amounts), but it's almost that generic.
It does not distinguish "edible with proper preparation" (like acorns) from "deadly poison, one bite may cause seisures, coma, and death" (hemlock).

I like to look at the statistics from a given region, and particularly any reported deaths or close calls from the last several decades.
In the reports from the same Georgia poison control website,
Plants are involved in less than 2% of the reported poisoning incidents (2013), and don't even make the report in other years. (This is calls answered, not necessarily treatment indicated.)
For comparison, medications and other drugs account for over 40% (2013), with other household chemicals like cleaning supplies and cosmetics accounted for 6 to 8 percent each. Pesticides were involved in twice as many of the calls as plants (3.6% compared to 1.4%, 2013).
The vast majority of calls involve kids under 6; these are kids who pretty much must be supervised, because their brains are not done cooking yet. Toddlers do not have the language skills to reliably follow instructions; early learners may not fully distinguish reality from make-believe.

While it may be appropriate briefly in the toddler-to-preschool age range, their recommendation to "teach children never to put plants in their mouth" worries me. It's an obvious step to try to reduce the amount of "yucky" that goes into a toddler; but "teaching" is not the operative term here. Supervision, not instruction, is the essential safety precaution. Dangerous plants must be removed from any child-safe playpen at this age.
But this is not an appropriate protective method for older children.
The attempt to remove all unknown plants and mushrooms from a larger play-yard, however, sounds like a temptation to employ far deadlier poisons. Knowing all your backyard plants by name could be a lifetime's learning goal. "Child-safe" spaces can lull both children and parents into a false sense of security (a child in a weed-free garden can still find poisonous potato and tomato leaves; children on "soft-surfaced" playgrounds break more bones because they use less caution).

I'd say that we'd want to
- <3: Age of Mouth: supervise children under 3 at all times; child-safe zones are relative.
- 3-6: Age of Storytime: As they start to talk/listen, start teaching in the garden / with alert adults. May need to enforce a "never eat a plant without permission" rule, or a system of "show-teacher." I feel that some plants can be identified as "friendly," those whose parts are all edible like peas or lettuce. Children of this age may not distinguish make-believe from reality. They do love to help with repetitive, creative-destruction tasks like winnowing, grinding, churning, etc. Supervision remains critical: teachers and parents should recognize poisonous plants, especially those that are particularly deadly or attractive (like baneberry / "doll's eyes"), just as they recognize the danger of a child carelessly approaching an unfamiliar pet. Children can be taught to avoid certain parts of the yard, or certain plants, but can't be counted on to remember complex instructions or use good judgement.
- 6-8: Age of Reason: Somewhere in this age range, most children begin to follow complex instructions, if-then reasoning, and may become fascinated with games of elaborate vocabulary and rules. There is no reason the tremendous memory abilities dedicated to 'Pokemon' can't be used for botany (or any other field of study: one of my cousins enjoyed his first calculus lesson at age 6). Responsible, reasoning children can begin training to self-identify specific wild edibles, with ongoing adult supervision calibrated to the child's demonstrated progress. They must show the ability to distinguish "make-believe" from "real," and consistently identify any dangerous plants nearby as well as the target plant(s). Nobody wants a salad plucked from between creeping vines of poison ivy.
- 8-adult: Most people have attained the age of reason; the rest depends on experience. A 12-year-old can babysit. The brain is still developing its final cognitive reasoning structures through 25 or so, with well-known consequences for emotional decision-making and insurance rates. Inexperience is far more dangerous than mere youth, however. A 52-year-old person who finally gets up the courage to join their first wild mushroom-hunt is just as vulnerable to error as a 12-year-old; both need access to reliable references, practice and caution, and will be safe only under expert guidance.

With plants it seems like an in-person introduction is far more effective than reading books or watching the Internet. One or two introductions in person gives me more immediate recognition than reading a dozen websites.

At all ages with wild plants, the procedure I learned is to:
1) identify the plant visually, using all available botanical and context clues. If self-teaching on new plants, confirm with more than one reference resource, or a reliable local expert.
2) use smell to confirm, if needed (may involve crushing leaves; do not get juice on hands until certain nasties have been ruled out)
3) Tasting sequence:
- after being properly introduced to an edible plant, from a safe (unsprayed, not roadside) location,
taste (do not swallow) a tiny amount the first time. (Spit it out, especially if self-teaching. If you are with an expert you trust, they may allow you to eat certain plants right away.)
4) after an hour or more with no adverse reaction, sample a bite.
5) after a day or more with no adverse reaction, eat a portion (several bites). If tolerated, continue eating small portions with a day or two in between, as long as the food is in season.
6) after a year or more with no adverse reactions, you may show and share this plant with other people, always allowing them to follow the same introduction sequence.
7) Food tolerances change. Allergies and sensitivities can increase with exposure, or with other factors like hunger, dehydration, alcohol or chemical exposure, etc. Just because you have eaten a plant for years does not make it safe to gorge on it, or to share it with others. Any new food can cause unusual digestive sensations; gorging on unfamiliar food can increase these to severe gut pain.

Visual cues: the whole botanical classification toolkit:
- general size and appearance
- structure: woody stems, herbaceous parts, exposed rhizomes or roots, or non-vascular structures (succulents, algaes).
- opposite / alternate leaves, stems,
- whether the leaves grow in rosettes from a crown, or from a stem;
- shape and texture of leaves;
- blossoms and fruit: shape, color, texture, how attached to the plant, how the parts fit together, how many parts (petals, sepals, etc).

- Look for 'trickster' plants with different-shaped leaves on the same plant, or where a damaged leaflet or blossom has the wrong count.
4-leaf clovers are fun; what about 2-leaf or 4-leaf strawberries?
Can you spot poison ivy with other-than-3 leaves? In our region poison oak is the common trickster; it can be any color from red to bright green to dark green to grey, and any height from underbrush to vine to shrubs like small trees (4" to 6" diameter). I make identifying it into a game for any outdoor camp or field trip, and give "points" for finding a new shape, form, or deceptive variation. We discover a lot of other 3-leaflet plants too, and learn to use other traits (thorny, hairy, has clover or strawberry blossoms, etc) to identify which ones are NOT poison oak.

- Work from generally-safe categories, toward more dangerous ones.
For example, in our region we have a lot of edible blue/black berries, and a few highly poisonous red or white ones. So when teaching huckleberry / blueberry recognition, I like to start with big friendly plants like blueberry and salal, and work up to being able to recognize the edible red hucks and tell them apart from other red berries or similar shrubs (poisonous red baneberry is low-growing in clusters, very different leaf. Diuretic / toxic snowberry has a similar bush shape, but leaves are opposite rather than alternate, and of course the white berries are a give-away.)

- Build on existing knowledge: dandelions, maple trees,

- Safety is not just about knowing the plant; it's about knowing the possible look-alikes, and steering clear of anything that resembles local nasties.

For example the mustard family is pretty easy to identify, and most all its members are edible with a range of similar flavors (from mild to sharp).

Bulbs are somewhere in the middle: there are a lot of edible alliums, and a lot of edible lilies, and a lot of poisonous lilies, and a lot of other bulbs that would look similar (or harmless and familiar). Daffodils are toxic; day lilies are edible. Who'd'a thunk?

Wild Carrot is one of the families I generally teach kids to avoid, since the family includes the incredibly toxic poison hemlock, water hemlock, and some other fun tricks like cow parsnip's photo-irritant chemical defense.
The risk of fatal poisoning from a single mis-identified bite is not worth it.
I teach kids to actively identify the general type of plant (feathery umbrelliferous plant - looks kinda like bolting parsley), specific signs or 'clues' that it could be poison hemlock (red freckles, hairless, round stems that branch), and sometimes we'll point out differences from carrots or yarrow if they're handy (leaves that wrap around the stem, tiny fuzzy hairs, solid green color). If any of the signs of hemlock are present, we stay away. I don't tend to show the hollow stem that's the origin of the name 'haemlock', unless there's soap and water and safe disposal handy. Too easy to forget to wash the knife. The smell is not always foul; I'm told the taste is not always bad either. All of the three signs might not always be present, just as poison ivy can lose a leaflet and show 2 leaves instead of the usual 3.

Mushrooms, though not strictly plants, would be another category to avoid until you have advanced training. They're not all deadly; some are delicious, but the signs are subtle and there's no antidote for most of the deadly ones.

Michael Cox
Post     Subject: Children Book for identifying plants or "weeds"

I've done foraging walks with groups of school kids before. I always:

  • Walk the route first - you need to know where everything is and it helps to plan timings etc... It also helps to know what is in season and where. A walk at this time of year is quite different to late summer or autumn.

  • Pick easily identifiable plants without poisonous lookalikes - you don't want a kid making a mistake when they are away from supervision. I heard of someone (an adult!) who had been shown how to make pine needle tea. They tried it for themselves with leaves from a yew and nearly died.

  • Point out usefuls as well as edibles - nettle cordage is a good one to play with, silver birch bark for fire lighting, hazel for walking poles etc...

  • Point out dangerous/poisonous plants as well as edibles - you want them to have a healthy respect for wild foraging and not assume that everything is safe to shove in the mouth.

  • Avoid all fungi... the risk is too high... you can point them out and explain sensible precautions

  • My favourites for wild harvests are:
    Blackberries, elderflowers, stinging nettles, nuts, wild fruits, leaves from various species, wood sorrel (prolific around here), mallow fruit (known as "cheeses") by the fist full and horseradish.
    Chris Badgett
    Post     Subject: Children Book for identifying plants or "weeds"

    Hi Zach, Thanks for spreading the passion for plants!

    Part of my livelihood comes from building websites for clients scattered across the globe:

    I just built this website for a client who makes wild edible plants informational playing cards:

    These could be a great teaching tool!

    Jessica Gorton
    Post     Subject: Children Book for identifying plants or "weeds"

    I really love Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel. Not specifically for children, but it's a great teaching tool for talking about how plant families have similar characteristics.
    John Elliott
    Post     Subject: Children Book for identifying plants or "weeds"

    There is no perfect field guide. That's why we have posts on here all the time of "what's this thing I found growing..." I've been wondering what that smilax was for a long time until I really made an effort to identify it this past weekend. And that was only because someone asked me what it was and I had to admit I didn't know.

    I think a plan would be for you to do a walk around the campus first, identify a few plants that have a story to go with them and then have kids be on the lookout for it the second time you walk around with them. I think the first weed people ever learn about is a dandelion. Four-year olds love to pick the seed heads and blow on them and watch all the seeds float away on the wind. It's just a matter of adding more to your knowledge base each time you go out.

    One that should be close to the top of the list is poison ivy -- so you know how to stay away from it.

    But there is so much biological diversity that you run into on a nature walk that you can't really be prepared beforehand. Then you have to collect samples, take them back to the lab (or classroom) and then start looking things up. That's when the real work starts.
    Zach Hurley
    Post     Subject: Children Book for identifying plants or "weeds"

    Ive looked at those before and they look great. The only problem is that I can't use that in the field (easily) or to ID weeds that we find on a walk around the campus. Unless I'm missing something. Am I?
    John Elliott
    Post     Subject: Children Book for identifying plants or "weeds"

    Books?? In this day and age of the Internet, where you can look it up on

    He's down in Florida, close to Gainesville I think, so a lot of the weeds he features are ones that you are going to find in your neck of the woods as well.

    He also has a lot of his material up on YouTube. I found this one particularly interesting:

    I've got a little of it growing around my place, now to work out a recipe and I can make my own sarsaparilla. Yum!
    Zach Hurley
    Post     Subject: Children Book for identifying plants or "weeds"

    I would like to buy a couple books to help my students learn to identify plants on my school campus. We have a couple hundred acres where we can roam around and there are swamps/ponds as well. Some of the students can pick up plants and use Leaf Snap and ID Weeds (iPhone Apps) to identify the plants but several of them won't go through that process or don't have a smartphone. I would like to buy a couple books that will be easy for them to identify weeds by flower type, leaf arrangement, and other easy characteristics. My hope is that they will appreciate plants more and realize that there is a lot of biodiversity in our 'front yard'.

    Can anyone help me with this? I teach 7th grade biology and we live in south Georgia. I would prefer it have lots of pictures and a how-to guide if possible.