Weed Identification Tools and Techniques

eOrganic author:

Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association of Biological Farming


Every kind of weed has an identity—its species. Following are some tools and techniques for identifying the weed species in your fields.

Identifying all the weeds on a farm is not easy, and it is usually not necessary. However, correctly identifying major weeds can be an important first step toward effective control. Two weed species can look very similar at certain growth stages, yet differ greatly in life cycle, modes of reproduction, effects on crops, and responses to control tactics.

What’s in a Name?

A plant’s species name can be spelled out in Latin (its scientific name, e.g., Amaranthus retroflexus) or in plain English (its common name, e.g., redroot pigweed). Scientific names are more precise, as each species has just one valid scientific name at any one time. They are also less descriptive and a little harder to pronounce, especially for those of us who did not take Latin in school.

Common names are more user-friendly but less precise. A given weed might have two or more common names. For example, common lambsquarters is also called fat-hen or white goosefoot. Some common names have been attached to two different weeds; for example, lambsquarters has also been called pigweed in some regions, and the term witchgrass has been applied both to the perennial quack grass and to an annual weed closely related to fall panicum. In order to minimize such confusion, weed scientists have adopted official common names, such as common lambsquarters for the species Chenopodium album, and redroot pigweed for Amaranthus retroflexus.

Botanists position each plant species in the enormous family tree of the plant kingdom, which illustrates current best estimates of each species’ genetic and evolutionary relationships with other plant species. A genus (plural genera) is a group of closely related species that share many characteristics of appearance, growth habit, and genetic makeup. Latin names are usually in two words, denoting the genus (e.g., Amaranthus) and the species (e.g., retroflexus).

Some plant species have distinct variants called subspecies, for which the Latin name has three words. Subspecies may evolve naturally as a species adapts to different environments (as many weeds do), or may be developed through plant breeding (e.g., cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, collards, and kale are all subspecies of Brassica oleracea). Subspecies can cross-breed, a fact that is important to understand. For example, Japanese millet (Echinocloa crus-galli ssp. frumentacea), a useful grain and cover crop, is a subspecies of barnyard grass (Echinocloa crus-galli), the world’s third worst weed!

Plant Families

The next larger grouping above genus is family. Some of the better-known plant families in agriculture include the grass family (including cereal grains, corn, sorghum, millets, and pasture grasses); the legume family (including peas, beans, clovers, and alfalfa); the brassica family (including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, and mustards); and the nightshade family (including tomato, potato, pepper, and eggplant).

Knowing a weed’s plant family is important, as many economically important crops have weedy relatives in the same family, which may harbor insect pests or pathogens of the crop, or in some cases cross-breed with the crop itself. Occasionally, the weedy relative can play a beneficial role, acting as a trap crop to divert pests from the cash crop, or supporting important natural enemies of the pests as well as the pests themselves.

Identifying Characteristics of Weeds

Identify weeds with the help of a good field guide, manual, or taxonomic key to the agricultural weeds in your region. Collect a representative specimen or several specimens (recommended), and examine them closely, including foliage, stem, flowers, roots, and other belowground parts. Familiarize yourself with some of the jargon used in your field guide or key (most references have a glossary of terms).

Plants are identified by visible characteristics that remain roughly constant among all individuals within a species. These can include:

  • Leaf shape, leaf margins, and venation (branching pattern of leaf veins)
  • Leaf structure (simple or compound)
  • Arrangement of leaves on the stem
  • Presence or absence of hairs on leaves or other parts of the plant
  • Flower structure, color, size
  • Inflorescence (arrangement of flowers or flower clusters on plant)
  • Size, shape, structure, color, and arrangement of fruits and seeds
  • Roots, rhizomes, and other underground structures
  • Life cycle (annual, biennial, perennial)
  • Habit of growth (erect, prostrate, climbing, etc.)

Characteristics that are more variable within a species, yet can help identify the weed include:

  • Plant height and lateral spread
  • Degree of branching, arrangement of branches on main stem
  • Leaf size
  • Leaf and stem coloration; stem hollowness

Other distinctive characteristics that help identify some weeds include:

  • Presence of spines, thorns, prickles, or stinging hairs
  • Milky juice or sap when stem or leaves are cut
  • Presence of a leaf sheath surrounding the stem at each node
  • Stems square in cross section

For more on how to recognize identifying characteristics of weeds, see A Basic Illustrated Glossary of Plant Identification Jargon below.

The more defining characteristics you can observe, the faster and easier it is to get a positive ID on the weed. Useful tools for identifying weeds include a ruler or folding rule to measure plants and plant parts; a hand lens or magnifying glass for examining small plant parts or features; a trowel, spade, or digging fork for exhuming intact root systems and other underground structures; and a weed identification guide or manual (Fig. 1).

Weed identification tools
Figure 1. Some basic weed identification tools. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Noting when and how a weed emerges and grows can aid in identification. Summer annuals are mostly frost-tender, usually emerge between the spring frost-free date and late summer, and die at the first fall frost. Winter annuals emerge any time between the end of summer and early the following spring, flower and set seed in spring or early summer, and usually dry up with the onset of hot weather. Thus a weed that is still thriving after a fall frost is almost certainly not a summer annual such as pigweed, purslane, or galinsoga, and a weed that is succulent and vegetative in July is probably not a winter annual like henbit or yellow rocket.

How a weed first emerges from the soil can give clues to whether it is coming up from a seed or from a rhizome or other perennial underground structure (Fig. 2). Dig up the emerging weed to see if it is a true seedling (easy to dig up, few fine roots, remains of seed or seed coat may or may not still be visible), or sprouting from a perennial root or other structure (harder to dig up, attached to a larger root, rhizome, tuber, or fragment thereof).

Newly emerged weeds
Figure 2. The small weeds in this photo are true seedlings, having germinated over the past two weeks. The larger weeds with somewhat arrow-shaped leaves are shoots of hedge bindweed that have emerged from rhizome or rhizome fragments within the top foot or so of soil. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Identifying Weeds at an Early Age

Flowering specimens are easiest to identify to species, because they display the greatest number of defining traits. In fact, plant families are delineated to a large degree by flower structure. However, growers often want to identify major weeds in earlier growth stages, even as emerging seedlings, in order to determine best management strategies while the weeds are small and relatively easy to control. This can be challenging to say the least. If a particular species has you stumped, let a few individuals develop into mature, flowering plants, then identify them.

Some weed manuals include good photographs and descriptions of seedling characteristics that allow identification of the weed’s plant family or genus, if not species. Seedling characteristics include:

  • Presence or absence, number, size, and shape of the seed leaves (cotyledons) on the aboveground part of the emerged seedling
  • Shape, arrangement, and size of the first true leaves emerging above the cotyledons
  • Stem and leaf coloration
  • Presence or absence of hairs on leaves or stem

Finding the Weed’s “Photo ID”

Once you have a weed specimen in hand, use one of these methods to identify its species:

  • Compare the weed with photographs and written descriptions of similar-looking weeds in a field guide or manual.
  • Use a dichotomous key, which consists of a series of “either–or” pairs of categories of plant characteristics, through which you gradually narrows possibilities down to one or a few species. At this point, the key provides detailed descriptions, usually with photos to verify the ID.
  • Use an interactive key, usually available on line or on a computer CD-ROM, which allows you to start with the most readily observable characteristics of the specimen at hand to identify the species or arrive at a short list of possible species IDs. The interactive key is usually better than the dichotomous key for identifying a weed in a vegetative (non-flowering) stage of development.

The direct comparison method is especially useful when you want to verify the ID of a weed with which you are familiar, or for which you have narrowed it down to a short list of possibilities. A strong likeness of the specimen to a photo or diagram, and a close match with the manual’s written description suggests a correct ID. A clear discrepancy in one or more defining characteristics indicates an incorrect ID—try again. This method can be quick and efficient when the list of possible species is reasonably short—if the manual is well organized, is written for your region, and includes the weed in question! Time-consuming pitfalls include random guessing, and trying to verify ID of a weed that the manual does not include.

The dichotomous key is the time-honored method by which botanists and agricultural scientists have identified weeds, native vegetation, or cultivated plants for the past century or more. The dichotomous key can provide a definitive ID when skillfully used. Starting at the beginning of the key, read each pair of characteristic descriptions or categories, and choose the one that best matches the specimen at hand. Each choice gives a reference number directing you to the next pair of characteristics to examine. It works much like a treasure hunt.

Dichotomous keys often use a lot of botanical jargon, so make sure the key has a good glossary of terms before buying the book. One disadvantage is that some of the dichotomies may refer to characteristics not shown by the specimen (e.g., flower color when the specimen is vegetative), or may be difficult to see. In this case, you will need to explore both sides of the dichotomy. Errors early in the process can send you on a lengthy “wild goose chase” until the error is discovered.

Several land grant universities and the Weed Science Society of America have developed interactive keys, based on computer databases that catalogue all of a region's or the continent's main agricultural weeds. The interactive key allows you to begin with the most readily visible or measurable traits of the specimen at hand. There is no set order in which to answer questions about the weed; instead, you can click on leaf shape, life cycle, flower color, root structure, or other characteristics, choosing the best match from a list of several alternatives. The key maintains a list of weeds that match the description being developed, narrowing the list down with each choice until the weed is identified or a short list of possible species remains. The database includes verbal descriptions and photos of each weed to assist with positive ID.

Weed Identification Challenges

Any of these methods is only as good as the weed manual, key, or database used, the quality of the specimens available, and the observation skills of the user. If the weed in question is not included in the key or guide being used, you can waste a lot of time searching for it in vain! It is important to choose a manual or database that is written for your region and includes all of the region's major agricultural weeds. If a particular weed cannot be found in the reference you are using, it could mean any of the following:

  • The manual is not sufficiently comprehensive.
  • The plant was not recognized as an economically important agricultural weed in the region when the manual was written.
  • The weed is a new invader from another region, country or continent.

If you cannot identify an important or abundant weed species present on the farm:

  • Try to narrow it down to plant family or genus.
  • Watch it closely to determine life cycle and habit of growth.
  • Collect and try to identify additional specimens at different seasons and growth stages.
  • Bring fresh specimens to the county Extension office or a nearby university weed science department for help with identification.

Farmers who bring fresh specimens of new or unfamiliar weeds in to Extension or university departments for positive ID can help with early detection of a new exotic invader or changes in weed geographic ranges related to climate changes or other factors.

A basic illustrated glossary of plant identification jargon

Structure of broadleaf plants
Figure 3. Structures on a broadleaf weed or crop. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Structure of grass plants
Figure 4. Structures on a grass weed or crop. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Figure 5. Broadleaf seedlings. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Roots and other underground structures
Figure 6. Roots and other underground structures. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Leaf shapes
Figure 7. Leaf shapes. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Leaf margins and venation
Figure 8. (a) Leaf margins. (b) Leaf venation. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Leaf structures
Figure 9. Leaf structures. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Arrangement of leaves on stems
Figure 10. Arrangement of leaves on stem. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Flower structures
Figure 11. Flower structures. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Types of flowers
Figure 12. Types of flowers. Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

Inflorescences - how flowers are arranged
Figure 13. Inflorescences (arrangement of flowers in clusters). Figure credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

This article is part of a series on Twelve Steps Toward Ecological Weed Management in Organic Vegetables. For more on weed monitoring and identification, see:


Weed Identification Resources


  • Baldwin, F. L., L. R. Oliver, and C.M. Bonner. 1982. Identifying seedling and mature weeds of Arkansas field crops. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR.
  • Chomas, A. J., J. J. Kells, and J. B. Carey. 2001. Common weed seedlings of the north central states. North Central Regional Extension Publication No. NCR 607. Available online at: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0145/8808/4272/files/NCR607.pdf (verified 23 Jan 2020).
  • Fishel, F., B. Johnson, D. Peterson, Mark Loux, and C. Sprague. 2000. Early spring weeds of no-till crop production. North Central Regional Extension Publication No. NCR 614. MU Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia. Available online at:http://weeds.cropsci.illinois.edu/extension/Other/NCR614.pdf (verified 23 Jan 2020).
  • Miller, J. F., A. D. Worsham, L. L. McCormick, D. E. Davis R. Cofer, and J. A. Smith. 1975. Weeds of the southern United States. Circular 599. North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service.
    This field guide covers 120 major weeds of the southern region (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA). The weeds covered were culled from a larger list of 300 weeds based on a survey conducted throughout the region, and thus does not cover all the significant weeds present. Weeds are arranged by family, and entries for each weed include a photograph, common and scientific name, and a one-paragraph description of life cycle, vegetative and flower characteristics.
  • Holm L. G., D. L. Plucknett, J. V. Pancho, and J. P. Herberger, 1991. The world's worst weeds. Kriegar Publishing Company, Malabar, FL.
    Lists the world's 18 most damaging weed species (17 of which occur in the United States!) in descending order of global economic impact, followed by another 58 major weeds in alphabetical order. Chapters on each weed give thorough descriptions, black-and-white drawings, world distribution maps, and information on habitat, propagation, biology, effects on different crops, and environmental conditions that favor, suppress, or kill the weed. This can be a particularly valuable resource for evaluating the potential impact of certain serious weed species on the organic farm, as well as learning the weed's weak points that can be exploited for control.
  • Isely, D. 1960. Weed identification and control in the north central states. Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA.
    Includes a key to plant families, and to weed species. Chapters are organized by plant family. Some of the Latin and common names are out of date, but high quality illustrations of plant, leaf, and flower structure, and a thorough glossary make this a potentially valuable plant identification resource.
  • Pratt, D. B., M. D. Owen , L. G. Clark. 1999. Identification of the weedy pigweeds and waterhemps of Iowa. Iowa State University Cooperative Extension, Ames, IA. Available online at: https://store.extension.iastate.edu/product/Identification-of-the-Weedy-Pigweeds-and-Waterhemps-of-Iowa (verified 23 Jan 2020).
  • Radford, A. E., H. E. Ahles, and C. R. Bell. 1968. Manual of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
    Most common weeds of the southeastern US will be included in this flora.
  • Stubbendieck, J., M. J. Coffin, and L. M. Landholt. 2003. Weeds of the Great Plains. Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Lincoln, Nebraska. Order form: http://www.agr.ne.gov/forms/nw11.pdf (verified 16 Dec 2010).
    Standard ID reference for most people in the western Corn Belt. Excellent color photos and black-and-white line drawings of 265 species, descriptions of an additional 125 species. Almost 600 pages in a hardbound book.
  • Stucky, J. M., T. J. Monaco, and A. D. Worsham. 1994. Identifying seedling and mature weeds common in the southeastern United States. North Carolina Agricultural Research Service and North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, Raleigh, NC.
  • United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 1971. Common weeds of the United States. Dover Publishing, New York.
    Lists significant weeds of the US by plant family. Each entry includes a distribution map for the continental US, drawings of the whole plant, flowers, leaves and seeds, and a thorough description of the plant and its habitat(s). Some names and distribution ranges may be out of date, but this classic still has a lot to offer.
  • Uva, R. H., J. C. Neal, and J. M. DiTomaso. 1997. Weeds of the northeast. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
    This reference covers 299 common weed species, arranged by plant family, with excellent photographs, detailed verbal descriptions, and comparisons to help the user distinguish between similar species. A dichotomous key, based on vegetative characteristics and supported by an excellent illustrated glossary of terms, allows the user to narrow a weed down to a short list of possible species whether or not the specimen at hand is in flower. Identification is then completed by comparison with photos and descriptions.
  • Zomlefer, W. B. 1994. Guide to flowering plant families. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
    Although not focused on weeds per se, this volume gives excellent descriptions and anatomical diagrams of the defining characteristics of plant families, including all the major weed families. Excellent and comprehensive illustrated glossary of terms in botany and plant anatomy.

Computer Disk

  • Old, R. 2008. 1,200 weeds of the 48 states & adjacent Canada: An interactive identification guide [DVD]. XID Services, Inc., Pullman, WA. Available from: http://xidservices.com/ (verified 16 Dec 2010).
    This is a computer CD that includes a database and an interactive key to 1,200 agricultural weeds throughout the continent. Instead of moving through dichotomous categories in a set sequence, the user can select from a wide range of vegetative and reproductive characteristics, using the most obvious traits of the specimen at hand to narrow down the list of possibilities.

Online Weed Identification Resources

  • New Jersey Weed Gallery [Online]. Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Available at: http://njaes.rutgers.edu/weeds/ (verified 16 Dec 2010).
    Alphabetical listing by common name or scientific name. Excellent photographs and very brief descriptions of 135 of the most common weeds in the mid-Atlantic region, including may major weeds of the South.
  • Hall, D. W., V. V. Vandiver, and J. A. Ferrell. 2006. Weeds in Florida (SP 37). EDIS – Electronic Data Information Source – UF/IFAS Extension. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Available at: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_book_florida_weeds (verified 16 Dec 2010).
    Photos and brief descriptions of 37 common weeds in Florida.
  • Weed Identification [Online]. Board of Trustees, University of Illinois. Available at: http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/weedid/ (verified 16 Dec 2010).
    This easy-to-use interactive key covers 172 species. The user enters known characteristics including life cycle, growth habit, leaf and flower characteristics to narrow down the list. Brief description and one or more photos for each weed. A few errors were discovered on the site, such as classifying the perennial weeds field horsetail and tall fescue as annuals.
  • Hagood, S. 2008. Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide [Online]. Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Available at: http://oak.ppws.vt.edu/weedindex.htm (verified 16 Dec 2010).
    This resource covers 324 weeds of the southeastern United States, arranged alphabetically by common name and by scientific name. Each entry includes photos of seedling and mature phases, close-ups of leaves and flowers, and verbal descriptions of life cycle, growth habit, leaves, flowers, and specific identifying characteristics. An interactive key to grass weeds is included to assist the user with this large family of hard-to-identify species.
  • Photo Gallery [Online]. Weed Science Society of America. Available at: http://www.wssa.net/Weeds/ID/PhotoGallery.htm (verified 16 Dec 2010).
    Has photographs of many weeds, including close-ups of leaves and flowers that can aid in identification, but no written descriptions.
  • PLANTS Database [Online]. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. Available at: http://plants.usda.gov/ (verified 16 Dec 2010).


Published January 18, 2011

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