So Ive been reading quite a bit into permaculture, help out at a local farm, and will be up in VT next week taking a PDC course at Whole Systems Designs. My weakest area is Plant ID. Without an obvious fruit or vegetable coming off a plant I have a very diffuclt time I.D.'ing trees, shurbs, grasses etc. Anyone know of any resources that are like flash cards for plants, or common permi plants at least?
I have found that the only way to really learn plants is by experience. Have someone show you the plants they know, and bring along a field guide (I like Peterson's guides) for reference. Take your time - I find that I can only learn so much in a season, and every year I add a few plants to my repertoire. Use your own yard and the farm you help on as classrooms - at the beginning of the season, pay attention to what plants look like coming out of the ground, and what they turn into. This spring and summer, having moved to a new homestead, I let a bunch of "weeds" come up in my garden, letting a few get big and go to flower. Now I know the difference between my volunteer poppies and thistles (which look surprisingly alike as seedlings), and I know which one I'm more interested in encouraging.
There are certainly books and websites that can help you learn (the aforementioned Peterson's and this site are two good examples), but the problem with looking at pictures of plants is that the actual plant tends to look different, depending on growing conditions, the area you live in, etc. Plus, some plants are biennials, and look very different from the first year (basal leaves and big taproot) to the second (tall, flowering). So, again, get the experience of watching particular plants through their whole life cycle. Then, try to find these plants in other places. I promise that you'll start seeing differences through experience.
Some of my favorite and easiest plants to start with: plantain, dandelion, red and white clover (two similar plants with particular differences in color and growth pattern), wild carrot/queen anne's lace (but be aware of its poisonous look alikes!), burdock, comfrey. Take the time to learn the differences between the conifers - lots of regular non-permie folks call them all Pine, and think that Hemlock is poisonous, and learning the difference totally changes a walk in the woods!
The way I identify unknown plants is to use a good key. With a good key it is only a matter of taking a close look at botanical details and narrowing it down by trial and error. That way I can get close even if it is a plant from a completely different part of the world.
I will second that, it's how I learned and indeed every botanist I know (wife, her dad, co workers) learned themselves. Using a key is how they teach plant id in graduate school, and you really must know basic botany first. I recommend the book botany in a day, and an example of a key I use is 'The manual of the vascular flora of the carolinas'. Though I'm not exactly in the carolinas, and either way would get you genus-close for anything in the southeast.
It has really helped to know a 'plant god' like my wife's dad. And the key method is what he uses for the rare plant that stumps him (which does happen even to plant gods).
For the Southeast, Green Deane's site is really good for finding wild edibles and useful species:
Over time, you'll start to recognize features that relate to each family. Square stems on the mint family, bloom types and seed pods on Fabaceae members, etc., and that makes things easier to narrow down.
Been trying to find somethign on permies but not getting it--
tall "weed,"/volunteer, maybe an aster, not not not goldenrod, it's gathering at the top and about to flower but still not doing so. It goes one leaf per node, alternating, and the leaves are simple single-lobed; however, at the bottom of the tallest it's starting to make three-lobed leaves, two little lobes on the side. The whole thing is getting nice and tall--4-5 feet--and I'm just observing them. Want to figure out what it is and if it's an aster then maybe it's remediating lead! woohoo! if not, then I want to swap it for something maybe.
if I can get a picture up here I'll post it.
I'm in Massachusetts, and it's growing in dry soil (a spot where I have some unfortunate bare soil) and mulched, moister-soil. In sun and partial shade.
It's super-common, I'm pretty sure, I just haven't found anyone able to ID it and I've asked several.
Community Building 2.0: ask me about drL, the rotational-mob-grazing format for human interactions.
Companion Planting Guide by World Permaculture Association