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Plant identification course: Re-connecting with the inner plant

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Topic: Science  |  Series: (Medicinal) Plants
By the end of May, my weekly e-mail feed on ecology and land conservation brought an exciting invitation: a course on Advanced Plant Identification Skills. The course held at the University of New South Wales in Sydney promised to teach how to use floral keys along with intensive practical sessions in plant identification. It focused on the flora of Sydney region including native Australian as well as introduced species. Since I am currently spending some time in Australia and have a great interest in local flora - so different from what I know from home - I became extremely keen on participation. The only thing that put me off was the price which was, for a fresh non-student, pretty high.

It took me a couple of days of thinking, before I decided to go for it. "Some people invest in around-the-world-travelling, I will invest money in learning about stuff I am head over heels into", was my reasoning behind the decision. My participation on the course was fuelled by my passion for both, learning and plants. As a truly nerd, I could not wait to learn some new stuff. That being said, I tried to keep my expectations at moderate level, aware that the course might be success as well as disappointment.

The course is held annually at the University of New South Wales and aims at botanical consultants, who want to improve their plant identification skills and (botanical) researchers doing plant fieldwork. As a pharmacist and analytical chemist, I was pretty much the only non-botanist taking part in the course. I had some basic knowledge of plant morphology and physiology which I gained during my pharmaceutical studies. That being in Czech, however, meant only limited support. All in all, it mattered only little as my interest in plants proved to be the most important ingredient.

The teachers – David Keith, Belinda Pellow and Frank Hemmings, all with decades of experience in botany – fortunately started the course with a concise lecture on botanical morphology. That was of tremendous help, not only for myself. The syllabus of the course promised intensive practical sessions. Hence, after the opening lecture we picked up our first plants to dissect under a microscope and to identify. We were working with the Flora of the Sydney Region, the first floral key I had ever worked with. Originally I was pretty disappointed there were no pictures in the book, only to realise a couple of hours later that, in fact, THAT is EXACTLY the POINT! As I learned, proper plant identification does not rely on photographs, which can be misleading and unable to capture miniature details. The floral keys, in contrast, describe all of them.

It is not difficult to understand how to work with a floral key as it is a very systematic approach. One always makes decision between two statements: 1. Leaves are smooth (> 2.) or Leaves are hairy (> 3.). Based on which of the statements in the "couplet" (1.) is correct, you move to the following set of questions indicated next to the individual statements: to set 2. in case your plant has smooth leaves or to set 3. if the leaves are covered with hairs. And so on and on and on and sometimes on and on again, until you reach to correct name.

So again, the principle is fairly simple. The trick here, however, is to understand what a floral key says. And that’s by far more challenging! Indeed, learning how to work with a flora is like studying a new language. Leaves are not only smooth or hairy… Leaves are dentate, bipinnate or revolute, ovaries inferior or superior, carpels connate or free... Now, I do know what a leaf is, thank you. But what does "carpel" stand for again? I have no clue, let alone being able to decide on its types. It is easy to get frustrated after realizing you don’t understand 5 words out of an 8-word sentence. And it is a question of only minutes to mark the pages of the flora where the glossary is. Simultaneously, however, the progress is just as much encouraging. The more you come across the same words, the more easily you remember them.

Obviously, the key to our progress were the teachers. David, Belinda and Frank were constantly present among the students noticing every arm shot into the air seeking help. "Have these phyllodes thickened margins or not?" "What is a bract?" And perhaps the most exciting question of them all: "Did I get the name right?" A "Yes!" sends you waves of joy: Mission accomplished! A "Not quite." means you need to retrace the steps through the flora jungle and try it again.

I always love it when a new group of people is formed: at the beginning its members do not know each other and then without notice and by natural efforts relationships are formed. And this was exactly the case of the course. After a couple of days, the shared frustrations, joys, progress and fun connected us. We laughed together, got excited when someone identified an especially challenging species and appreciated help from more knowledgeable colleagues. I loved it seeing people being interested and I loved it being among plant nerds not feeling inappropriate exclaiming a particular flower was beautiful.

I encourage everybody who is pondering her or his own participation on the course next year. The amount of knowledge and practice gained and the energy you get out of it is well-worth the price and the travelling. Talking of energy, there is understandably some spent, too. The course is stretched over four days (9am to 5pm), covering flowering plants, including grasses and orchids, ferns and gymnosperms. By the end of Day 3 you have the feeling your head is going to explode. Again, this is what I expect from an excellent course!

I love being now able to assign correct names to plants I see growing around – even though I am well aware I need heaps of practice. I believe that only once we know what we are looking at, we can take further actions including conservation, education and research. We have to re-connect with our inner plants before we can protect plants in general and before we can ask help from them in reciprocation. This is what the course achieves readily. At least that’s how I felt it.

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