One of my favorite hobbies is backpacking through the mountains. I find that a prolonged period of time in the woods surrounded by plants and trees never fails to rejuvenate my spirit.
My feeling is that these benefits would be even more intense if I had a deeper understanding of the still and silent life forms around me.
I’m sure that many others feel this deep desire to self-learn botany to gain a closer connection to nature, or for more practical purposes like gardening, but aren’t quite sure where to start.
Here you’ll find a step-by-step guide for teaching yourself the basics of botany, outside of school.
What You’ll Learn if You Follow This DIY Botany Curriculum
You’ll learn how to identify and classify the plants you come across, plus some plant biology.
You’ll also learn how plants relate to their ecosystem, as well as applied sciences like agriculture and forestry, technologies upon which our societies depend.
Perhaps this is your gateway to becoming a plant scientist. Perhaps it’s just a way to gain a closer connection with the world around you while giving yourself an intellectual challenge.
Whatever your reason for self-studying the subject, I hope this guide helps you on your path!
1. Watch This Short Botany Explainer Video
First, take a look at this short 5-minute video answering the question “what is botany”:
I feel a short video like this helps frame the rest of the guide. It also clears up any misconceptions you might have about the subject.
You might also want to check out this video about 10 botany jobs:
Some of you likely anticipate working with plants at some point in your future, so it’s good to know what jobs are out there.
2. Develop Your Interest in Plants by Reading a Few Books
Before hitting the textbooks and memorizing plant terminology, it’s best to grow and/or test your curiosity. You want to make sure this is something you really want to devote time to.
Below are three great plant-related books for beginners:
We had to read Braiding Sweetgrass in my environmental journalism class in college. I found it eye-opening and inspiring.
The author, a botanist, has obviously amassed an incredible bank of knowledge, and sense of appreciation, for the plants around us.
The book, in Elizabeth Gilbert’s words, takes you on “a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise”
The Hidden Life of Trees
The Hidden Life of Trees is anything but hidden. I feel like it’s displayed front and center in every bookstore I walk into.
I guess that’s what happens when one of your reviewers has this to say:
“Breaks entirely new ground … [Peter Wohlleben] has listened to trees and decoded their language. Now he speaks for them.”—The New York Review of Books
So Tolkien was onto something with his Ents?
Give this one a read to learn a lot of cool facts about trees and how they communicate with each other.
Also, if you like ecology, you might want to read Wohlleben’s The Secret Wisdom of Nature.
It opened my eyes to how interconnected animals, plants, insects, rivers and the other parts of nature are to one another, and how fragile those symbiotic connections can be with humans around.
3. Take Coursera’s “Understanding Plants” Online Course
Whenever studying a new subject, it’s helpful to have an expert walk you through the basics.
Coursera offers a two-part course called Understanding Plants for exactly this purpose:
If you’re a fan of Crash Course, they also have a helpful series of 15 videos:
After doing a course, you should have enough background and curiosity to get a bit more into the weeds of the discipline 🙂
4. Read an Introductory Botany Textbook
A good introductory botany book will teach you the basics of plant biology, including:
- How plants fuction
- Plant structure and processes
- Plant genetics and how they pass on
- A bit of plant evolution
- Plant classification
This is a good book for absolute beginners. You don’t need much prior biology knowledge to grasp the concepts, the explanations are clear, and there are plenty of helpful illustrations.
5. Study Plant Identification & Terminology
Time to start learning the names of the different plants and their parts, and what they look like.
This is perhaps the most time-consuming part of learning botany. You’ll learn thousands of new words.
Like a medical student learning the language of human anatomy and physiology, you’ll learn the language of plants that botanists use to identify, describe, and discuss the plants they work with.
Doing this is a lot easier with the help of illustrations next to the terms.
Grab a copy of Plant Identification Terminology for such a book:
It’s regarded as one of the best out there.
“This is probably the best book for anyone interested in plant identification. In one section it is set up like a dictionary so you can easily look up unfamiliar terms alphabetically. In the other section it is set up by category, leaves, stems, flowers etc. so if you don’t really know what you are looking for you can easily search by category.” — Stephanie G.
If you don’t like this book, another popular option is A Botanist’s Vocabulary: 1300 terms explained and illustrated.
Both will enable you to more effectively talk about plants (sadly not to them).
Each plant you encounter will also be so much more interesting to you since you can name its parts and think about what makes it special.
TO memorize all this stuff, you might want to use a spaced-repetion flashcard app like Anki.
6. Grab a Field Guide and Go Explore the Outdoors
One of the most exciting parts of studying botany is going outdoors and trying to identify the interesting plants you come across.
Or you might go out searching for a rare wildflower that calls to you.
To do this, grab a botany field guide for your local area, or wherever you’re doing your nature exploration. These are filled with pictures that help you spot and name plants.
For example, if you lived in the White Mountains of Arizona, you might grab this guide titled Guide to the Plants of Arizona’s White Mountains.
Someone interested in flowers who lives in the Northeast USA might choose Wildflowers of New England.
Another way to identify plants is with a plant identification app like Plant Net. It lets you use your phone to take pictures of the plant, and then tells you the name of the plant.
7. Start Growing Your own Plants
My grandma spent the mornings of her later life working in her garden. Her living room was filled with gardening books.
My favorite was the one about local insects. I vividly remember the gross ones she had to protect her garden from.
Anyway, if you like plants so much, consider creating a garden of your own. If you’re like me and you rent a smal apartment, and therefore don’t have a place to make a garden, consider joining a local gardening community and helping out.
Working in a garden will force you to learn more about botany and the flowers, fruits, and veggies you plant.
When you run into problems or want to try something new, you’ll grab a book and can apply what you learn, causing it to stick.
Plus, when the world is mean, you’ll still have your plants.
8. Narrow Your Scope Based on Your Curiosity
There are many subdisciplines of botany, including physiology, ecology, and applied sciences like forestry, horticulture, and pharmacology.
There are also many different types of plants — trees, flowers, mosses, etc.,
Consider picking 1-2 smaller topics that you’re feverishly curious about and studying them deeply.
Depending on your career goals, you might also want to look into degree programs to get the certifications you need.
Regardless of where you are in your self-education journey, and where you want to go, there are certainly many resources than the ones covered in this article to help you self-learn botany.
If you’d like to learn how to make the best use of those online resources and books, check out my article on how to become a successful autodidact.
Also, if your intellectual curiosity is all over the landscape of knowledge like mine is, visit my self-education roadmaps and see if there’s any other subject you’d like to teach yourself.