Identifying House Plants

Jeanne Grunert
repotting a house plant

Identifying house plants takes a bit of time and detective work, but with a few clues and a good reference guide, you can figure out exactly what type of plant you have and how to take care of it.

Gathering Facts for Identifying House Plants

There are thousands of potential house plants, not including some outdoor shrubs such as gardenias that may be grown indoors as house plants or outside as shrubs or landscaping plants. If a neighbor or friend gave you a cutting or you rescued a poor house plant from the curb after its owner set it out for the trash and you don't know what you're looking at, use these tips for identifying house plants.

Leaves

Note the color and shape of the leaves.

  • Does the plant have leaves or spines?
  • Are the leaves green or variegated?
  • What are the shape of the leaves - round, oval, serrated, heart shaped?

Growth Habit

Next, jot down some observations about the plant's growth habit.

  • How big is the plant?
  • Does it trail over the edge of its pot like a vine, or grow upright?
  • Does it have one big stem or multiple stems?

Flowers

  • Does the plant have any flowers?
  • If so, what color are they?
  • Do the flowers have a fragrance?
  • What do the buds look like?

Common House Plants

A few common house plants are fairly easy to identify. Many of these end up without tags or other identification because they're easy to propagate or grow from cuttings.

  • African Violets: African violets have rounded, fuzzy leaves and a compact growth habit. There are miniature African violets that fit into a teacup and large, mature specimens that can stand in for a dining room centerpiece. If the plant is blooming, a good violet website can help you identify the exact plant you have.
  • Cactus and Succulents: Cactus and succulents have thick, fleshy stems. Cacti have spines, while succulents generally have smooth surfaces of leaves, although the leaves may have serrated edges. If you're looking at your plant and it looks like it should be growing out in the desert, chances are good you may have a cactus or succulent.
  • Philodendron, pothos, and similar hanging plants: Many of these plants have heart-shaped leaves and long, trailing stems. The leaves may be dark green or gold and green, with some variation in the color.

Get an Expert Opinion

You can take photographs of your house plant and try to match it to the plants in your local garden center. Another option is to contact your local Cooperative Extension Office and see if anyone there can help you identify your house plant.

Books and Websites

Most websites and books are arranged in alphabetical order, by botanical name, which is the least useful method for people who have a plant but don't know the name of it. It's a bit easier if the book or website is arranged according to category. Based on the clues you've jotted down from your observations, you probably have a good idea of whether or not your plant is a cactus, a hanging plant, a foliage plant, or possibly a flowering plant.

Try the following sites and see if you can find a match for your plant:

  • The Encyclopedia of House Plants online offers photo matching, but you'll have to scroll through a lot of photos. It's worth it though - they have many photos and lots of information.
  • Plant Care also offers an extensive online encyclopedia to help you ID your unknown plant.
  • The Guide to House Plants lists plants alphabetically, but if you think you know what you have, you can find lots of excellent information.

After you've correctly identified your house plant, you'll be able to give it the proper amount of light, water and fertilizer to help it thrive.

Identifying House Plants