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Identifying 12 Common Urban Plants

Author: DBN Fellow Dimitri Kakaris


Curious about the plants growing around you? The ones you see all the time in cracks and lawns in your neighborhood? Well I am going to go over 12 plants that you can easily learn to identify!


IMPORTANT NOTE: Any use of plants should only be with proper identification and knowledge of the subject. You must do research consisting of multiple sources and exercise caution. This guide is meant to spark interest and give general knowledge. Any plant that is chosen for consumption must be harvested from an area free from pollution; avoid any plants directly by roadways.


1. Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta)

A small plant (3-8 in) that often gets confused for clover. You can find this plant almost everywhere, look along edges and cracks of sidewalks as well as in lawns. It has three heart shaped leaves on each stem which droop in the absence of sunlight. The leaves are alternate, and the stems are covered in small hairs. It produces small yellow flowers with five petals, which turn into seed pods that are conical in shape. The genus name, Oxalis, refers to the higher oxalic acid content found in these plants, which can hinder calcium absorption in large quantities. Place of origin: Europe and North America. Photo source: Ebay. Find more info about Yellow Wood Sorrel here.


2. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

A succulent-like plant that you might find growing in your driveway or sidewalk. The green leaves are shiny and juicy while the thick stems have a red color or reddish tint. It grows in a sprawling manner, its stems radiating outward from its center and spreading along the ground. The stems and leaves are both smooth, without any hairs. At the terminal ends of the shoots it showcases its little yellow flowers (5 petals) toward mid-summer. The flowers then turn into small seed capsules that contain many tiny blackish seeds inside. This plant is easy to grow from a cutting and could be a cool experiment for a plant enthusiast. This plant has a history of culinary use in Mediterranean culture, however proper research and careful harvesting must be exercised. Place of origin: Eurasia. Photo source: gardeningknowhow.com. Find more info about purslane here.

NOTE: This harmless plant can often be confused for another called Spotted Spurge (Euphorbia maculata) which resembles purslane to the untrained eye (pictured left). However, they have significant differences, spurge has red spots on its leaves and its leaves are not succulent like purslane. Spurge also has hairy stems and does not produce yellow flowers. Photo source: askextension.org.


3. Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

This plant you have most likely seen while driving along the sides of roadways, its stiff stems and blue flowers standing out on curbs. This plant likes full sun and can grow up to 1-3 feet when undisturbed. It has alternate leaves longer (~8 in) than they are wide (~2 in) in a lance-like shape, coming to a slight point. This plant produces light blue flowers, which can fade to white, that are about an inch across. The flower petals have teeth-like edges and this plant can be found in the city next to our roads and sidewalks. It has a significant taproot, which pushes deep down into compact soils. The root of this plant has been used as a coffee additive or substitute in times of scarcity. Place of origin: Eurasia. Photo source: passionhorticulture.wordpress.com. Find more info about chicory here.


4. Plantain (Plantago major/Plantago lanceolata)


This is a plant, or “weed”, that you have likely stepped on multiple times in fields or on sidewalks. The flat leaves lay out on the ground, radiating from the center and it produces flowering stalks that stick up into the air. The bottom of the leaves have pronounced ribs as the leaves mature. The difference between major (left) and lanceolata (right) is the leaf shape and flower stalk. Plantago major has broad leaves and flowers along the length of the stalk, also known as broad leaf plantain. Lanceolata has narrow lance-like leaves and flowers at the tip of the stalk. The plant is ubiquitous and even has some medical use. Look out for it when walking on sidewalks-chances are you will find it. Place of origin: Europe. Photo source: dspermaculture.wordpress.com. Find more info about broadleaf and narrowleaf plantain here and here.


5. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Another common plant you want to be familiar with is yarrow, found all throughout the Midwest and other regions. It is a smaller plant (1-3 in) without its flowering stalk and grows up to 1-2 ft tall with its flowering head. Its leaves are feather-like, narrow with a lacy appearance. In the summer, this plant produces white flower heads consisting of many small flowers with 5 petals. Even without the flower stalk, this plant can be found laying low in lawns or fields. It likes full sun and well drained soils. This plant has a long history of use for wounds: the genus name Achillea comes from the Greek soldier Achilles, whose soldiers reportedly used yarrow on their battle wounds. There are also several cultivated varieties with large flowering heads of various colors. Place of origin: Europe, Asia, and North America. Photo source: gobotany.nativeplantrust.org. Find out more on Yarrow here.


6. Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa/Solidago sp.)

This plant stands out in late summer along roadsides and open areas with its bright yellow flower clusters. This plant can get rather tall, typically 3-4 feet, depending on the location, likes full sun and drier soils. Its leaves (alternate) are lance-like (~6 in) and smooth on top. It is very common on disturbed sites with full-partial sun, such as sides of trails and roadways. Look for it when driving or walking in late summer, its yellow flowering heads are hard to miss. Place of origin: many species native to Michigan. Photo source: gogreenwilmette.org. Find more about goldenrods here.






7. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

This well know “weed” is a common plant in Michigan prairies and fields that is becoming less common due to its removal in many urban areas. This plant is very important for many insects, such as bees and butterflies, providing ample habitat and sustenance for pollinators. Most notably the monarch butterfly uses this plant for its eggs, as the leaves are one of the few species the caterpillars can feed on. This plant grows up to 2-5 feet and produces clusters of purple-pink flowers at the top. Its leaves, up to 8 in long and 3.5 in wide, are oppositely arranged and hairless on top. The stem and underside of the leaves are covered in very short hairs. Its stem is thick, and the leaves have a prominent midrib running down the center. The most notable characteristic of this plant is the white latex, or “milk”, that oozes from cuts to its veins. This latex is protective (potentially toxic) and is meant to engulf insects and deter animals when feeding on its stems. The flowers produce green seed pods, the pods are conical in shape and are covered in soft “spikes”. Please use caution when Identifying this plant and do not damage the plant in a way that stunts its growth. Place of origin: native to eastern North America. Photo sources: www.fs.fed.us and livescience.com. Find out more about common milkweed here.


8. Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

This plant, non-native to North America, can be found in well drained, disturbed areas in full sun. Its signature flower stalks can often be seen from the roadside and parks in late summer. Its leaves are arranged spirally and become rather large at the base. The leaves are covered in soft hairs, giving it a fuzzy appearance. It grows very tall when undisturbed, 3-7 feet, and has a large flowering stalk at the top. The flowers are small and yellow in color and they do not bloom all at once, seemingly popping out at random along the length of the stalk. The flowers are replaced with seed capsules that contain many small black seeds. Place of origin: Eurasia. Photo source and more info about mullein here.



9. Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/Rhus typhina)

This tree may be over your head as it can grow quite tall, up to 30 feet. Its oppositely arranged leaves are smooth and lanceolate, with lighter coloration on the bottom. Younger wood is quite hairy and has a reddish coloration. The older stems become woody and develop bark. Its fruits are hard to miss, as red clusters stick straight up from the ends of branches. The seed heads were used by Native Americans as a source of vitamin c and other nutrients. Origin: native to eastern North America. Photo source: herbsfromdistantlands.blogspot.com. More info on staghorn sumac here.


10. Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

This is a plant you want to observe and NOT touch. Being aware of poisonous plants is important. This plant can grow rather tall (3-7 feet) and produces flowering heads like yarrow, but different if you know what to look for. Its leaves have a fern like appearance and are alternately arranged. It prefers moist soil and some sun; It can often be found on the edges of creeks or other water sources. Its hairless stem is thick and circular with bumps at leaf nodes and has purple splotches or coloration along its length. As its name suggests it is indeed poisonous when consumed, thus it is important to learn to identify. It is the plant that Athenians used to use to execute prisoners, including the well-known philosopher Socrates. Poison hemlock causes death through respiratory arrest and heart failure. Place of origin: Europe and North Africa. Photo sources: www.kingcounty.gov and www.dreamstime.com. More info on poison hemlock can be found here.


11. Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

This small plant (.5-2 feet) you have likely seen before in lawns and fields. Its hairy leaves come in pairs of three and have white chevrons on the top side. In mid-summer you can start to see its familiar pink flowering heads poking through the grass. Enjoys full sun, so look for it along the sides of roads and sidewalks. Place of origin: Eurasia. Photo source and more info here.










12. Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)

Also known as Queen Ann’s Lace, this plant is indeed a carrot and likely grows in your backyard. Its alternately arranged leaves have a fern like appearance but are arranged spirally around the base of the plant. It typically grows from 2-5 feet tall and produces white flowering heads like yarrow at the top. The stalks and lower leaf surface are sparsely covered in small hairs. It prefers full sun and dry conditions so look for it in lawns or even cracks in pavement. Its leaves are toxic, while with proper care and research its young root can be consumed. Place of origin: Eurasia and North Africa. Photo sources: hollirichey.com and agpest.co.nz. More info on wild carrot can be found here.


If you'd like to know even more about common urban plants, check out this great field guide by Peter del Tredici, "Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast."Happy exploring!

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