Tuesday, 14 May 2013

IDing plants (Week 6, Tuesday)

I was in only in the morning today, and we did some more filling of the pits left behind by the Nash sculptures. I am not going to talk about that today, however: there's more to be done and I'm sure the topic will pop up again.

Instead, I'm going to blabber on about plant ID tests, as that is something I love doing and it's on my mind at the moment: one is coming up in two weeks and I'm far behind with my study.

I keep thinking of ways to prepare for it thoroughly, but so far I have not had any time to put any into practice! For the previous test I only got 2 weeks to study and scored just 64% (I was very disappointed but it is not too bad a result if you consider that I had no idea how it worked and was only supposed to study 10 of 30 plants, being my first month; instead I got almost double that right). I did however do a couple of stupid mistakes, but this month I want to get it right!

Here is how it works. Each month, we are given a list of ten plants, like the one in the picture.

For each plant we have to learn:

  • Family name
  • Genus & species
  • Common name (if any)
  • Geographic origin
  • Features and season of interest
  • Propagation techniques
  • Pests and diseases
  • Plant uses
On the last Thursday of a month, samples of 30 plants (from the lists of the current month plus the two previous ones) are picked from all over the garden, assigned a number, and displayed onto a table for us to identify. We have to name them all, plus some of them come with a question on any of the other items we have to study.

The most important thing to do is to have a good look at the plant: some diagnostic characteristics - unambiguous and distinguishing* - are shape and texture of leaves, flowers, bark. Those features, having been spotted by the first botanists to discover the plants, are often also the ones that give a plant species its name. For example Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo) is so called because of the jet black colour of mature canes (they start off as green) and Distylium racemosum (isu tree) derives its name from the shape of the inflorescences: racemes. Sometimes you have to analyse more than one characteristic to identify a plant correctly: as I mentioned yesterday, I found a crab apple with leaves like hawthorn and a pear tree with willow-like leaves: leaf shape wouldn't help there!

I do like the challenge of identifying a plant...

Plant of the same family will have broadly the same characteristics on certain features (on my post on Fireblight I talked about identifying the Rosaceae family), a genus will share more specific and defining features than a family, and a species will share some even more specific defining characteristic within the genus - have often thought how fascinating it is that our brain can group together, and distinguish at the same time, the features of something in a group... for example I can often identify correctly Italians among white humans. Not always, but there is often something that tells a group apart: how they dress, how they gesticulate... something. The same with plants.

So far I have gone about the task of having a good look at plants in 4 ways:
  • weekend visits to botanic gardens (I have come across some of the plants in my list while having leisurely walks: easy!)
  • looking for the plants I need in the gardens (it can be quite a time and energy consuming task, given the distances involved)
  • keeping an eye out for plants that I know are in the area I am working in (very convenient, but not comprehensive)
  • looking plants up on the internet (there are some good images, but of course it does not come even close to having a good look at the plant itself).
Of all plants I have come across in the first 3 ways I have taken pictures of, which I am planning to make meaningfully available for all, somehow. For now, they are on my Flickr, some scattered around, some grouped in sets. Here is my photographic interpretation of an Acer griseum, for example. I want to keep adding pictures from the various seasons... Unfortunately I do not have a good picture for all plants, because most of the time I go around only with my phone camera, but it's something anyway.

I found that the RHS Plant Selector is a good way to find the wider information I need on plants for my test, and my colleagues also suggested the PFAF website. The Missouri Botanical Garden plant finder also comes handy. And for propagation techniques, as well as features of interest, my propagation book for RHS Level 3 is great.

Ideally, I would really like to put up plant summaries for all the plants I study on this blog: have always loved to find IDing material online, with photos to help, for both plants and wildlife! Not sure I will manage, though, it is so time consuming - one has a lot of time for the curators of such collections...

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