Plant Classification: Decoding Plant Types

Use a classic botanist practice known as the dichotomous key to identify common plants and trees.

About the Activity

Plants are multi-celled organisms with cell walls that often use the process of photosynthesis to make food for survival. In addition to providing oxygen to our planet, plants supply 90% of human calorie intake, 80% of human protein intake, and are critical to our wellbeing. We can thank plants for providing us with a healthy and sustainable food system.

In this activity, you’ll learn about the taxonomy system which classifies and organizes plants all around us. You’ll begin to understand how living organisms are related, and what makes them different.

This activity is part of our 4-H at Home Plant Science Series. See the rest of the activities here.

Grades: 6-8
Topic: Agriculture, Plant Science, STEM
Estimated Time: 30-45 minutes

Brought to you by University of Georgia Extension/4-H and USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Special thanks to Kasey Bozeman, Extension 4-H Specialist

Various potted plants

Activity Steps

In this activity, you will use taxonomy to classify and organize different types of plants. It’s important to know two things:

  • Botany is the scientific study of plants along with their growth, structure, evolution, and uses. A botanist is a scientist who studies plants.
  • Taxonomy is the branch of science concerned with classifying living organisms. Any living organism – bacteria, protist, fungi, plants, and animals – can be classified using taxonomy.Did you know? Photosynthesis is the process where plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into food to survive. During photosynthesis, the plant releases oxygen into the atmosphere. There are only a few plants that do not use photosynthesis to survive, and that’s because they get their nutrients from other organisms (for example, a Venus Fly Trap plant eats small insects like flies).
A woman in a lab coat examining plants

Follow these instructions and enjoy this activity that makes it easy to learn more about how plants are classified:

  1. Print out the plant cards
  2. Cut along the dotted lines to trim around each of the plant cards
  3. Turn the cards upside down, and randomly mix them up. Choose your first card!
  4. Print out the dichotomous key and use it to identify a specific type of plant on your chosen card. The dichotomous key is a tool that can be used to identify organisms or objects. The key consists of a series of paired statements about features or characteristics. The answer to the question guides you to the next question.Did you know? French scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck developed the first text-based dichotomous key in 1778. Other scientists used his tools to determine the names of different plants found throughout France. The prefix “di” means two, which is why with each statement or question, a scientist is given two options.
  5. Print out the answer chart, and record your answers in it as you go. You can check your answers at the end of the activity.*Did you know? Dichotomous keys categorize organisms so botanists can compare new species with the information we already know. For example, if we know all angiosperms produce flowers and a new plant with flowers is discovered, then we can generally conclude this new plant will be an angiosperm. Or, we know that a monocot is known as a flowering plant with one seed leaf (or cotyledon), and similar plants would fall into the same grouping.

Reflection Questions
Bonus questions to inspire wonder:

  1. What are some basic characteristics of plants?
  2. How did you use the dichotomous key to identify the plant samples?
  3. Can you use the dichotomous key to identify any plants in your own backyard?
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Investigate and Explore
Take what you've learned to the next level to learn more and explore the possibilities.

Scientists estimate that there are more than 400,000 species of plants on earth. Since the beginning of civilization, humans have used plants for food and medicine. Agriculture is the science or practice of farming, including the cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products. The Latin roots of the word agriculture mean “cultivation of the fields.” Agricultural practices began between 7,000-10,000 years ago during the New Stone Age.

Additionally, there are thousands of products that are derived from different plant series. Some of these examples are soaps, shampoos, paints, rubber, inks, and gums. Another major product created from plants include wood that can be used for buildings, furniture, and musical instruments. Scientists must be able to accurately identify plants in order to properly use them for food, medicines, and other products.

Plants growing in the ground

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No endorsement of these supporters' products or services is granted or implied by 4‑H. This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, AFRI - Education and Workforce Development project 2021-67037-33376.9

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