Male spicebush flower with 9 stamens.

One of the most intimidating aspects of botany is the vocabulary. The technical vocabulary is necessary to describe plant details necessary for identification with precision, but little of it seems intuitive to beginners. I try to increase my botanical vocabulary slowly, as needed.

In the detailed monographs listed to the left I have italicized words that I have included in the glossary and I have aimed to keep it simple—for my sake! Botanical dictionaries and botanical picture dictionaries exists. A popular one that I find extraordinarily helpful is Plant Identification Terminology, An Illustrated Glossary by James G. Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris. Books or other on-line resources also often include their own glossaries, as in the Flora of Virginia.

Here’s another good on-line botanical dictionary:  Plant Info Center at U. of N.C. at Chapel Hill

The following terms are used in italics in the species monographs.

Flower terms / Fruit terms / General plant terms / Leaf terms / Root terms / Seed terms / Stem terms

Star chickweed.

Flower Terms


usually looks like a small leaf where a flower stalk meets the plant stem. In unusual circumstances the bracts have color and become pronounced looking like petals as in dogwood flowers and poinsettia


an often drooping cluster  of small, stalk-less flowers, doesn’t look like what one thinks of as a “flower”; more like a pipe cleaner


means “below” – an inferior ovary is the swelled organ where the seed develops that sits LOWER than the petals and sepals if viewed from the side or in cross-section


a flower head spike or cluster of flowers on a plant; the bloom(s)


so small you can’t really see it without magnification; usually refers to flowers


flower organ that contains the ovules which mature into seeds


undeveloped part of the ovary which becomes the seed


an elongated  cluster of flowers that matures starting at the bottom and working  towards the tip


stalk of a single flower within a cluster of flowers


primary flower stalk of a solitary flower or cluster of flowers


the second to bottom structure of the flower head usually in direct contact with the sepals. Petals are often large and colorful


reproductive part of the flower that contains the ovary and other parts and sometimes is shaped like a bowling pin in the center of the flower


the very tiny grains produced by  male parts of a flower that fertilize the seeds and usually appear as fine yellow dust


an elongated cluster of flowers or berries tight along a stem that start bloom at the bottom and work their way upwards over time


the lowest structure at the bottom of a flower where the flower meets the flower stalk. The sepals often look like small leaves cupping the flower above, and in fact, function to protect the flower before it opens


an elongated cluster of flowers with no individual stems or side branching


the part of grasses and sedges that sticks upward like a spike and contains all the tiny flowers


male reproductive part of a flower that includes a filament (shaft) anthers (heads), and pollen

staminal tube

central tube of a flower sometimes left after all the individual flowers fall off


means “above” – a superior ovary is the swelled organ where the seed develops that sits HIGHER than the petals and sepals if viewed from the side or in cross-section


the end tip of the highest stem or stalk


a flower head in which all the individual flower stalks radiate from a common point, like an umbrella

united sepal

sepals that are connected to each other towards the flower stalk

Viburnum fruit

Fruit Terms


a cone consists of seeds with overlapping outer thin papery or woody scales around a central axis


a berry with a single seed, usually a large seed

Screening sieve used to clean the lamb’s quarters seed.

General Plant Terms


the medicinal ability to restore the proper functioning to the body, gently over time, by eliminating wastes and improving metabolism


a young, undeveloped leaf, flower or shoot enclosed in tight scales

cleaning screens

screens with different size openings to allow seed to fall through, but other plant parts to be captured and removed


moisture absorbing material that pulls moisture out of an object to dry it thoroughly


male flowers are on one plant, female flowers on another plant. Only female plants produces fruit and needs another male plant nearby in order to be fertilized


causing vomiting


not extinct worldwide, but extinct within a given locale like a state, country or continent


a family subdivides into genera which related to each other, like siblings


the reproductive part of a tree or plant that matures into fruit, seed or nut

genus (plural genera)

a genus subdivides into species, which are related to each other


plant whose stem is not woody


a non-native to the ecosystem, but now naturalized and thriving so well so that it is displacing natives through an unnatural competition


asymmetrically shaped flower


visible small dots, slits, diamonds or triangular openings in the bark and twigs of trees and shrubs where gas exchange occurs withe the atmosphere, one way a plant breathes


a thousandth of an inch measurement, plural is “mils”


male and female flowers on the same plant, a plant that can self-fertilize


an indigenous species occurs naturally in an area, not introduced by humans

non-native naturalized

originally non-native to the area, but introduced into the area by humans accidentally or on purpose, and plant is now reproducing on its own with no further help. Often “naturalized” means it is a plant we “like” and it is not displacing native species or causing much harm to the local ecosystem

non-native invasive

originally non-native to the area, but introduced into the area by humans accidentally or on purpose, and plant is now reproducing on its own with no further help. Often “invasive” means it is a plant we “no longer like” because it is doing too well and taking over and is displacing or harming native species


symmetrically shaped flower


a woody plant, smaller than a tree, often with multiple trunks, a bush


separating the seeds from the plant by beating, flailing, or somehow knocking the seeds off the plant


separating the loosened seed from the other undesired dried bits of flower and leaf using air currents to blow away the lighter bits and allowing the seed to fall and be captured




Common ragweed leaf in the left, Queen Anne’s Lace leaf on the right.

Leaf Terms

Chart by Debivort Chart of leaf morphology characteristics. January, 2006 From Wikimedia commons


the arrangement of leaves or branches singly along a stem where the leaf stems are not directly across from each other or whorled but instead alternate up the stem with space between branches


tip of leaf


the spot on the stem or branch directly above the leaf stem (petiole


the centerline extension of the leaf stem running the  length of a leaf to the tip, which is where the midrib runs


base of a plant at ground level


bottom of leaf that attaches to the leaf stem (petiole)

compound leaves

a leaf which is actually comprised of 3 or more  leaflets along a central stem, as opposed to a simple leaf which consists of one leaf blade only. When the leaf drops off, the whole compound leaf falls as one


shape of leaf is heart-shaped


same as compound leaf


the edge of the leaf is smooth and not toothed


leaf’s skin


leaf blade


a single blade of a compound leaf. Leaflets share a common stem and all together they make up one compound leaf. Leaflets look like leaves, all lie in the same plane, but do not have new growth buds forming where they attach to the leaf axil


leaf blade has an undulating edge creating sections but none of the indentations in the leaf outline go completely to the leaf rib


the side edges of the leaf


raised center vein running lengthwise down the center back of a leaf


a type of plant that usually has oblong or linear leaves with parallel leaf veins; also called a monocotyledon


the arrangement of leaves or branches in pairs directly opposite each other on a stem


shape of the leaf is like an almond or an eye


description of an arrangement of leaflets in a compound leaf–each leaflet attaches at a common point on the leaf stem like a palm leaf or the palm of your hand with fingers outstretched


stalk of leaf that connect to branch or twig. If no stalk it is called sessile


description of an arrangement of leaflets in a compound leaf–each leaflet arranged basically alongside one another on opposite sides of the axis


plant with more than one shape of leaf


raised main vein on back of a leaf


a dense cluster of leaves that form just at ground level in a ring around the center where the stem has or will emerge


edge of leaf that appears zigzagged, forward-pointing and  sawblade-like; toothed


having no leaf stem, attaching directly to stem or twig


a leaf with one leaf blade, with or without lobes but not consisting of many separate leaflets


space or indentation between two lobes or teeth of a leaf


an appendage or small leaf-looking part that emerges at the point the leaf meets the stem at the leaf axil


sharp pointed edges of the leaf, usually like a sawblade edge


Fibrous roots of bristlegrass.

Root Terms


an underground stem that is a creeping rootstock and sends out new roots; when divided, rhizomes can create new plants. Similar to stolons


runners, at the base of the plant. Thin, connecting runners that lay parallel along the ground connecting plant to plant, and sending out new roots. Like strawberry plants have


Great ragweed seed left, common ragweed seed right.

Seed/Nut Terms


a hard, dry, single seed that does not open


the stiff “whiskers” that stick up out of the seed heads of many grass grains and like wheat


the hulls, crumbly leaves, stems and papery parts of grains that are removed before the seed is eaten, loosely to mean the unwanted dried plants bits other than the seeds


the outer part that covers a seed or grain


the fruit of the plant. “Soft mast” is fleshy fruits like berries. “Hard mast” is nuts like acorns or walnuts


seeds that can take airtight, dry, frozen storage and survive


think “dandelion fluff” or “parachute”–a feature mostly in the Aster family. Develops as the seed matures and the flower parts fall away–the seed is attached to the pappus “hairs” that help it lift and float in the wind


seed is fussy and has high maintenance storage needs that cannot tolerate dry, airtight, frozen conditions


“Knees” of nodding bristlegrass.

Stem Terms


the section of a stem between where the leaves or branches attach


a swollen area on a stem, often look like a “knee” where a leaf attaches. Grasses have obvious nodes


an underground stem that is a creeping rootstock and sends out new roots; when divided, rhizomes can create new plants. Similar to stolons


a wing on a stem is a thin flat attachment to the stem that runs the length of the stem. The “wing” attaches perpendicular to the stem surface. A cut stem viewed it edgewise will display the wing in profile