Within the last two decades, substantial progress has been made in understanding seed-bank dynamics and the contribution of the soil seed bank to a postdisturbance plant community. There has been relatively little progress, however, in understanding perennial bud-bank dynamics and the contribution of the soil bud bank to secondary succession. This lack of information is due primarily to the inability to reliably identify roots, rhizomes and lignotubers that lie dormant beneath the soil surface. This investigation addressed the issue of identification of below-ground woody structures. The first objective was to develop a method that used molecular tools to identify woody plant species from subsoil tissue samples. The second objective was to develop a key in which molecular markers served as criteria for the identification and differentiation of selected tree and shrub species common to the mountains of northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. Application of restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis of polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-amplified rbcL appears to be a reliable method to identify and differentiate 15 plants to the genus level. Two restriction enzymes, DpnII and HhaI, provided restriction site polymorphisms in the PCR product. The fragment number and length were used to develop an identification key. However, plants not analysed in this ‘exploratory key’ might share the same banding patterns, resulting in a false identification of unknowns.