NatureSpot – guidance for vascular plant recording

This guidance covers vascular plants:

  • Wild flowers
  • Ferns and horsetails
  • Grasses, rushes and sedges
  • Conifers, trees and shrubs

It doesn’t cover algae, mosses and liverworts, which are ‘non-vascular’ - i.e. they don’t have tubes (phloem and xylem) in their stems to take water and nutrients around the plant. (NatureSpot also collects records for non-vascular plants.)


Unlike many groups of animals, there isn’t a comprehensive website for vascular plant identification.   A field guide is essential.  The BSBI is a good place to start – there is a link to some book reviews on this page.

The botanist’s bible is Clive Stace’s ‘New Flora of the British Isles (CUP, 2010).  Not for the faint-hearted, but it does include keys for the identification of all native, naturalised and crop plants in the British Isles, and is the ultimate reference book for verification of records.  

Where we have list below some useful identification resources:



  • Video: Key Features of Grasses Useful for Identification
  • Video: Two Increasingly Common City Grasses
  • The FSC fold-out Guide to Common Grasses is great starting point (and inexpensive).
  • A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes by Dominic Price is highly recommended.
  • A Field Key to Grasses of the East Midlands is also very useful.

Native, non-native and naturalised

NatureSpot wants records for:

  • Our native wild species, either growing in the wild, or as weeds of garden or arable cultivation;
  • Established native wild plants originating from deliberate planting or sowing in the wild – e.g. as part of a conservation project;
  • Non-native plants that have become ‘naturalised’ in the wild, e.g. by escaping from gardens or originating from bird-seed or animal fodder;
  • Long-established individuals of non-native species – such as large planted trees. 

Naturalised’ means that it is supporting itself in the wild, without cultivation or help from humans.

Recording in gardens

NatureSpot can’t accept records of our native wild plants that have been planted in a garden or park, even if they are self-seeding in the garden.    

Many planted wild flowers have been deliberately introduced into gardens - such as lungwort, violets, primroses and welsh poppy – and these don’t ‘count’ until they have escaped from the garden and are surviving in the wild on their own.

Weeds that have found their own way into gardens can be recorded – such as petty spurge, groundsel, etc.

Parks, churchyards and cemeteries

As well as cultivated plants, parks often have semi-natural habitats in them, such as woodlands, old grassland, watercourses and ponds, and it is fine to record plants in these habitats.   

NatureSpot will accept records for big trees that are going to be around for a while – Horse Chestnut, Cedar, Yew, Plane, Silver Lime, etc. 

NatureSpot won’t accept smaller trees, such as flowering cherries, crab-apples, ornamental birches, Catalpa, dove-trees, and many others.   Many of these are sterile hybrids or varieties which can never ‘escape’ or become naturalised, and identification can be very difficult.  


Many species in NatureSpot’s Species Galleries are colour-coded:

  • Green:         Easily identified and usually common; a photo helps to verify it but isn't usually necessary for known recorders
  • Amber:         A series of good photos is needed for verification
  • Red:             Collect a specimen, backed up with photos of location and habitat


Field botanists often identify plants through ‘jizz’ – so the whole form and character of the plant are important, as well as the detail.  A close-up of a flower isn’t always helpful – identification often depends on details of leaves, bracts and sepals.   Some species can only be identified with certainty from their seed-pods.

It is helpful to take photos of:

  • The upper and lower (basal) leaves;
  • The sepals, calyx, bracts or phyllaries below the petals – e.g. a picture of the flower, side-on. With grasses look to see if the flowers have awns - bristle-like projections
  • A picture of the flower showing stamens and style – the male and female parts of the flower; the style is usually in the middle, surrounded by a ring of stamens
  • Any ripe seed-pods or fruits. With ferns, look for the sori - the spore producing organs on the underside of the fronds.
  • The stem - is it hairy and if so are the hairs glandular or adpressed to the stem?
  • With grasses look for the ligule - this is a membranous scale on the inner side of the leaf sheath at its junction with the blade.  It can be revealed by pulling the blade away from the stem at the junction.
  • The whole plant, showing its habitat


If you want to take a specimen of the plant, remove a flowerhead or floret, and some basal and stem leaves.   If it’s a grass or sedge, take a whole flowering stem from as low down as possible.  If you can’t photograph it, make a note of the height of the plant, whether it looks like an annual or perennial, and its habitat.

Records of some rare plants may need to be verified from specimens rather than photos.  If you think you have found something rare, take a sample of it. 

Specimens will keep in the fridge in a sealed plastic bag for several days, but get the specimen to an expert as soon as possible, with date you found it, location and detailed grid reference, in case they want to visit the site themselves.

Annual, biennial or perennial

Many identification keys rely on whether it is an annual, biennial or perennial.  This can be hard to tell from a specimen, so make a note in the field.

  • Annuals – complete their life-cycle in one year, from a seed to a fruiting plant, and then dying.   No basal leaves, and the flower-stem arises from a single rooted plant.  Many arable weeds are annuals.
  • Biennials – in the first year, produces non-flowering rosettes of basal leaves, and a flower spike in the second year, then dies.   Foxgloves and mulleins are usually biennials.
  • Perennials – long-lasting plants that flower year on year from the same rootstock – either dying back each year (herbaceous plants, including most meadow flowers) or having a woody structure (trees and shrubs). 

Some notes on difficult plants

  • Elms – even the national experts can’t identify these.  Record them as ‘Ulmus’, with a note in the Comments box of the species you feel your specimen most resembled.
  • Sallows – there are so many naturalised varieties and hybrids that many are impossible to identify with any certainty, even from specimens.    Record them as ‘Salix’ with a note in the Comments box of the species you feel your specimen most resembled.
  • Hawkweeds, hawkbits, cat’s-ears, hawk’s-beards and their relatives – all with yellow dandelion-like flowers.  Often the leaves and bracts under the flower-heads are needed; sometimes the inner structure of the flowerhead.  Take specimens if in doubt.   Most are possible to identify from good photos – except Hawkweed; just record these as ‘Hieracium’.   
  • Willowherbs – some need detailed examination to look for glandular hairs.  Many can be done from good photos – get a good photo of the stigma (club-shaped or 4-lobed) and the leaves and stem.  
  • Yellow crucifers – plants in the cabbage family.  Ripe seed-pods are nearly always needed. 
  • White umbellifers – parsley and carrot family.   Leaves, stems, bracts and bracteoles (the leafy bits under the main and secondary umbels – take a side-on photo) are important.  Seeds are often needed to identify rarer species.
  • Grasses – very difficult from non-flowering shoots, and many are v hard to identify from photos unless they are in flower.   Meadow-grasses (Poa), Fescues (Festuca) and Bents (Agrostis) are especially difficult to verify except from a specimen.
  • Sedges and rushes – This is a difficult group, and many will need to be identified form specimens.  Ripe seeds are often needed, backed up by a photo of the flower head and the whole plant in its habitat.

Who’s who in plant recording in Leicestershire and Rutland

The BSBI or ‘Botanical Society of the British Isles’ is the national body that ensures high standards in plant recording and taxonomy (scientific plant-names), through the appointment of volunteer County Recorders. 

Ours are Geoffrey Hall, Russell Parry and Steve Woodward.   

Difficult plant verifications and information about rare species are forwarded to them for checking.

Michael Jeeves is the previous County Recorder and author of ‘The Flora of Leicestershire and Rutland: Checklist and Rare Plant Register’ (LRWT, 2011).  This is essential if you want to check the status of a plant – e.g. whether it is common or rare, its main habitat and natural area, its known sites, etc.   It is available from the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.

The Flora of Leicestershire’ (A L Primavesi and P A Evans, Leicestershire Museums, 1988) and the ‘Flora of Rutland (G Messenger, Leicestershire Museums, 1971) are still useful, although rather out-of-date.  They show distribution ‘dot-maps’ of all vascular plants in the Counties, and have much additional useful information including a section on geology, some habitat studies and a gazetteer. 

Sue Timms is Leicestershire County Council’s Principal Ecologist and manager of the Local Environmental Records Centre.   Most of the NatureSpot vascular plant verification is done by Sue, with support from other NatureSpot verifiers and the County Recorders.

Vice-County VC55

A Vice-County is a division of the UK that is approximately the same as most modern Counties.  They were devised in the early years of botanical recording and are still used.  Ours is ‘VC55’, and it includes both Leicestershire and Rutland.   The main difference to the modern counties are near Belvoir, Market Harborough and Swadlincote/Church Gresley.

NatureSpot accepts records from the combined modern and vice-County areas.