City Conservators hone their plant identification skills

Would you too like to hone your fynbos ID skills? Biodiversity staff from the City’s nature reserves attended fynbos identification courses at the City’s new Environmental Education Centre in Green Point in May and June 2016.

Here they are recieving their certificates after five days of hard work

The next fynbos ID course is at the Ecolounge 3 -7 October 2016.

Basic Fynbos Identification course participants
Basic Fynbos Identification course participants

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advanced fynbos identification course participants
Advanced fynbos identification course participants

Books: the original external hard drive

Our brains are hardwired for image recognition and using pictures is the preferred method of identifying plants. Of course, the quickest way to get a name for an unknown species is obvious – ask a knowledgeable person. An expert can usually recall the name of a plant instantly if you show them a specimen or a picture and it might take a bit longer with a verbal description. Although this recall process appears effortless, we forget how wonderful our brains in fact are and how long it took to gain the experience and knowledge.

Experts spend many years observing and recording species in books and scientific papers. Line illustrations, photographs and descriptions of plants have been made for centuries. This external hard drive of information is available to us all but it is only useful if we know how to use it.

John Mannings Fynbos Book
John Mannings Fynbos Book
Consulting the Fynbos Book
Consulting the Fynbos Book

 

 

The flick method vs using a key

There is nothing wrong with flicking through the book to find a picture that matches an unknown plant. I have seen experts at flower shows frantically flicking through the Botsoc guides in search of quick names. In this day and age we are impatient and want names instantly. The index at the back of books is invaluable if you know a common or scientific name but not very useful if you have no idea of the name. Keys are designed to help you find a group of similar looking plants.

Key to the monocots and dicots in Manning Fynbos book
Key to the monocots and dicots in Manning Fynbos book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using a key requires an understanding of the words used to describe different parts of plants and this is where the problem comes in……..most people resist using keys because they find words that they don’t know.

The key is not designed to confuse. The easiest terminology is used but the incredible diversity of fynbos species makes simplification into easy categories is impossible.

 

Making your own key

Constructing a key to identify kitchen utensils
Constructing a key to identify kitchen utensils

Participants worked with some cutlery to choose characters to sort the utensils into the most useful groups and then into a key. It was thought provoking and fun and lead to lots of discussion and arguments

Putting plants in a group

Putting plants in the correct family
Putting plants in the correct family
The Key in the Manning Fynbos book groups different families into groups based on common features. Learning to move seamlessly up and down the taxonomic heirarchy and know when a character is important or not is hard to work out at the beginning.
 
 
Physically walking the talk helps to embed this new knowledge.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Structure of plants and flowers

Understanding the structure of plants and flowers and the terminology used to describe those parts is crucial for getting to know fynbos better. Course participants start by looking at leaf shape and the myriad of words to describe leaves. Flowers are leaves that have become specialized for reproduction so leaf shapes also apply to the shapes of petals in flowers.

looking at leaves
looking at leaves
looking closely at flowers
looking closely at flowers

Making models of flowers

Making clay models of flowers
Making clay models of flowers

Sepals, petals, stamen, stigma, style and ovary are the basic terms to describe a flower. Making 3-D models of flowers to connect with the many different kinds of flowers is fun and easy to remember.

Is the flower Zygomorphic/2-lipped? or actinomorphic/radially symmetrical? Deciding on the symmetry of the flower indicates how pollinators are guided into the flower to access their reward ( and of course transfer the pollen).

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A network of terminology

Understanding the function of a part will often indicate why it looks like it does. If you can work this out, it helps to create an image in your head which in turn helps to connect with the correct term. Often the common name and/or the scientific name will refer to a noticeable feature of a plant. The trick to remembering the terminology is making connections with existing images and knowledge in ones head and then practicing using it.

Many fynbos plants have aromatic leaves that presumably are not very palatable to hungry herbivores. All Buchus or Citrus Family have scented leaves that release their lemony scents when leaves are crushed. Touching plants and smelling them is a very useful tool to tell whether you have a member of the Buchu Family or not

Fynbos often have smelly leaves to discourage hungry herbivores
Participants learn to touch the confetti bush and smell the aromatic leaves

What to look for on a plant

interviewing plants
interviewing plants to look for useful clues

Knowing the sort of questions to ask a plant helps one to look for and  record information that will be useful in using the key

Are you a tree or a shrub? A climber? a succulent? How are your leaves arranged?

Do you have single flowers or are your flowers small and arranged in an inflorescence?

Do you a superior or inferior ovary?

etc etc…………

Recording information

Dissecting and drawing
Dissecting and drawing

Connecting the terms used to describe the parts of a plant to the actual 3 dimensional plant is best done with a combination of dissecting and drawing and labelling.

Many students resist the drawing part but it is a vital link in the cycle of looking and learning. If you draw something that doesn’t look like the plant in front of you then you have to work out what to change. In that process of self correction the learning and the remembering happens.

 

 

Looking for fine details
Looking for fine details

 

 

 

 

Using the microscope and or hand lens to see very small structures

Using the microscope
Using the microscope

A whole new opens up inside a flower when you look at it through the microscope.

Looking closely with the hand lens
Looking closely with the hand lens

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