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How to identify wild plants for chicken feed

Identifying chickweed[I] think this is a great idea for winter feeding & would have appreciated a good identification pic of what chickweed actually looks like since I have no idea!

--- Danetta

Since my background is in biology (with an emphasis on plants), I tend to forget that you might not all be able to run out into your yards and scoop up the plants I write about for your chickens.  I pointed Danetta to this post for identifying chickweed, but I thought all of our readers might like a bit of help with plant ID. 

Ground cherriesFirst of all, the great thing about starting your edible plants forays with chickens in mind is that you're much less likely to poison anyone.  As long as you don't starve your flock and then provide only poisonous plants, chickens seem to be pretty good at figuring out what's good to eat and ignoring what's not.  That's actually how I get most of my wild chicken feed tips --- from watching what my free ranging birds gravitate toward.

That caveat out of the way, it's time-consuming but ultimately quite simple to learn to identify wild plants.  First, you need to understand some very basic science.  If you don't already know what a scientific name is, which part is the genus, and which part is the specific epithet, go look that up now.

Jewelweed flowerNext, remember that the shape of the flowers is the most important way to narrow down the identification of an unknown plant because plants with similarly shaped flowers are often closely related (often in the same genus or at least in the same family).  Other important characteristics to take note of include whether the palnt is a tree, shrub, vine, or herb (nonwoody plant), the type of seeds, the orientation and shape of the leaves, and the presence or absence of hairs.  Beginners tend to focus only on flower color, which is pretty much useless for identification purposes if you don't have anything else to go on.

Now that you know what to look for in an unknown plant, it's time to find an identification guide.  These are all location-specific, so choose your book depending on where you live.  I started out with Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers, which is an excellent text for beginners even if (like me) you live slightly outside the book's range.  Peterson's is much easier to use than the supposedly beginners' Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, which is not nearly as nicely illustrated and requires the reader to know much more.

Tick trefoilNo matter what you choose as your beginner guide, after a while you'll start finding plants that aren't included in the text.  If you're feeling brave, you can find your state's manual of flora (if they have one --- Virginia doesn't yet, so I bounce between Plant Life of Kentucky (easy), Flora of West Virginia (medium), and Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (excessively hard).)  If you're stuck choosing between two species and the technical language in your flora is giving you conniptions, it's also handy to type the scientific name into a google image search, which will usually turn up lots of photos of that species from various angles.  (As always when working with the internet, though, assess the quality of the website before counting it as gospel.)

I hope that helps you identify the plants in your chicken yard and beyond so you can figure out which ones are best to encourage for your flock!

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