Plant Talk 5 Using Botanical Keys
Greetings Plant Enthusiasts!
Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa), Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), and Fringe Tree (Chionanthus spp.) are all just starting to bloom right now around Asheville. The Princess tree has a fascinating story from its name both botanical and common to its alluring flowers and former position in the Scrophulariaceae now in its own family the Paulowniaceae (Group, 2009; Haston, Richardson, Stevens, Chase, & Harris, 2009)!
The Azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) are also still putting on quite a show. These can make for beautiful sprays of bouquets that unfortunately are not that long lasting. i hope to visit the Azalea collection soon at the NC Arboretum next to where i live that contains all 15 native species to the southeast. Really appreciating the turn from Spring to Summer and the ephemeral nature of many currently flowering species.
What plants around you are in flower or fruit? Include a few down below in the commentary section if you get a chance. Make a bouquet for someone you love and one for yourself too! Think, colors, heights, textures, smells….Some flowers hold up better than others. Members of the Brassicaceae, Poaceae and Asteraceae are particularly good choices. For the last decade i have done the flowers for the Warren Wilson College graduation stage along with my friend and mentor Michael Gentry. You can see an example of one of our arrangements in the picture above.
Botany in a Day Pages 25-36
Using keys can be downright intimidating to some and at least a bit tricky to get a hang of for many. Organizing your thoughts in a systematic logical progression is essential. Pages 25 (5th ed.) and 23 (6th ed.) offer a basic tutorial.
The monocots and dicots are a big separation amongst the flowering plants. The monocots have their own key on page 36 (5th ed.) pgs. 34-35 (6th ed.). We discussed the differences in the last class and they can be revisited on pg. 14 (5th ed.) or pg. 15 (6th ed.).
Next to the monocot key is a useful key to woody plants by their fruits. The trees and shrubs are a very accessible group to get to know as most areas have them in the tens versus lower growing plants by the hundreds or thousands.
The Asters are a natural distinction unto themselves numbering in the thousands in North America alone. Something on the order of about 1 in 9 plants in North America inhabit the Aster family. They are often broken into a number of tribes of which Elpel offers descriptions pages 161-172 (5th ed.) and 163-174 (6th ed.)
Understanding the terms covered in both inside covers and on page 26 (5th ed.) and 24 (6th ed.) is essential to going deep with your exploration of botany. However, much enjoyment can come from looking at the major patterns illustrated along pages 27-36 (5th ed.) and 25-35 (6th ed.).
Regular Dicot Flowers with Numerous Petals
Not too many wild plants fit in this group and many of them are succulent or aquatic. The Ranunculaceae is a notable exception. It is notable that sometimes the members of this family only have sepals that look like petals.
Irregular Dicot Flowers
Most of these plants have distinctive flowers that are easy to distinguish. However in the Lamiales order i.e. Mints (Lamiaceae), Snapdragons (Scrophulariaceae), Verbenas (Verbenaceae), and Plantain (Plataginaceae) it can get tricky. This is especially the case in the tropics where several more families such as Acanthaceae, Bignoniaceae and Gesneriaceae join the party. Most of the Peas, Violets (Viola spp.) and Touch me Nots (Impatiens spp.) are rather apparent when in flower and from the habits of their leaves. Ranunculaceae members that are irregular are also rather distinctive once in flower. It bears noting that these can be some of the most poisonous plants around especially Monkshood (Aconitum spp.)
Regular Dicot Flowers 0, 3, 6 petals
This is an uncommon pattern as you may recall. Typically monocots have parts in 3 and 6s not dicots. This is mostly a primitive characteristic seen in the Magnolia (Magnoliaceae), Bay Laurel (Lauraceae), PawPaw (Annonaceae), and Barberry (Berberidaceae) families amongst others. It makes sense for those who have the 6th ed. When you look at the plant family tree of evolution on page 16.
Regular Dicot flowers 4 petals
i can often place a plant to family from four petals, form and bloom time alone in temperate realms. Brassicas flower early and tend to be yellow, white or occasionally purple.
The Coffee family (Rubiaceae) has mostly square stemmed low growing members in the temperate world with petals that are white and occasionally blue and are blooming now as well. Some examples include Cleavers/Ladies Bedstraw/Sweet Woodruff (Galium spp.), Bluets (Houstonia) and Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens).
Members of the Heath Family (Ericaceae) blooming now often have their petals fused into an “urn” like shape.
The Evening Primrose (Onagraceae), Loosestrife (Lythraceae) and Hydrangea families (Hydrangeaceae) tend to bloom later in the spring and more in the summer while the Gentianaceae tends to bloom in the fall.
The Olive family (Oleaceae) is the most prominent woody group in the temperate zone of the U.S. with four petals. It tends to contain representatives here with fragrant white and sometimes blue petals. Some examples include Fringe Tree (Chionanthus spp.), Lilac (Syringa spp.), Ash (Fraxinus spp.) and Jasmine (Jasminum spp.). The Autumn Olive family Elaeagnaceae also has four petals with fragrant flowers and members that can tend to be invasive at times. One distinction is that the Elaeagnaceae tend to have silver colored undersides to their leaves.
Regular dicot flowers 5 united petals
Many of these plants with tubular flowers have distinct inflorescences that make it easy to place them in a family. Phlox in the Polemoniaceae are an excellent example that are or will be blooming soon in many locales. Members of the Borage family that now includes the Waterleaf family are other examples currently blooming.
Regular Dicot Flowers 5 separate petals
This is by far the most common pattern as can be seen from all the illustrations on page 33 (5th ed.) and 31 (6th ed.). Thus it will take the longest to learn and distinguish.
Flowers are by far the easiest way to determine a plant. But, the goal overtime is to build a portfolio of characteristics including growth habit, leaf orientation, leaf form, color, hairiness, smell, fruit characteristics, bark, sap, ecotype etc.
Just notice characteristics and differences…attention to detail is key. The vocabulary of botany can take you as far as you want to go. A flora may feature hundreds of technical terms. However, with the knowledge above and practice with the keys in Botany in a Day you can go really far toward a practical understanding of the plants around you. However, i encourage you to check out the Flora for your area to get a sense of the overall scope. A great flora for the Southeastern US by Alan Weakley can be downloaded for free www.herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm A good book or two on plant terminology may also be helpful (Bailey, 1963; Cady & Gordon, 2005; Harris & Harris, 2001; Smith, 1997; Stearn, 2002).
For the next class we will cover other major mostly non-woody temperate food plants it will be posted around May 23rd.
Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave information in the commentary under this class. i would really love to hear what you have to say!!!
In the meantime…
-What plants around you are in flower or fruit? Include a few down below in the commentary section if you get a chance.
-Make a bouquet for someone you love and one for yourself too! Think colors, heights, textures, smells….
- Read the entries in Botany in a Day and the site here on the 7/8 major families discussed last time if you have not already.
- Attend a workshop or a class and write up a brief description of plants or information learned.
- Begin to make a photo album of a certain nature spot while the seasons progress.
- Post any clear photos of question plants to Facebook or send in an email.
Praises to all that have donated to the cause! i encourage everyone to donate as they are able financially, commentarily, or energetically... Your contributions greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education. Please let me know your thoughts in general and anyway i can help this class serve you best.
Bailey, L. H. (1963). How Plants Get Their Names (2nd ed.). Dover Publications.
Cady, M., & Gordon, S. (Eds.). (2005). Plant Names Explained, Botanical Terms and their Meaning. Boston, MA: Horticulture Publications.
Group, T. A. P. (2009). An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 161(2), 105–121. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8339.2009.00996.x
Harris, J., & Harris, M. (2001). Plant Identification Terminology (2nd ed.). Spring Lake, Utah: Spring Lake Publishing.
Haston, E., Richardson, J. E., Stevens, P. F., Chase, M. W., & Harris, D. J. (2009). The Linear Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (LAPG) III: a linear sequence of the families in APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 161(2), 128–131. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8339.2009.01000.x
Smith, A. (1997). A Gardener’s Handbook of Plant Names Their Meanings and Origins. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.
Stearn, W. T. (2002). Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners: A Handbook on the Origin and Meaning of the Botanical Names of some Cultivated Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press.