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Foraging Resources Continued: Determining Plant Families and Genus with Tom Elpel's "Botany in a Day"

Outdoorsy types are a breed apart from your "average" person. I have had some lengthy discussions with non-outdoor folks about why my idea of "fun" involves giving up the creature comforts of home in exchange for a camp outdoors. A camp that is hopefully not being invaded by the creatures of the forest. Like the bumper sticker says "if I have to explain it to you, you wouldn't understand anyway."

Joey and Jag sampling Spruce needles in Roaring Plains, WV

Growing up I always styled myself as a modern day pioneer woman; the idea of living off the land is so romantic, albeit in a rather masochistic way. I loved to play in the woods when other girls were playing Barbie dolls. My earliest recollection of foraging was about the age of 10, when a classmate introduced me to Sassafras tea. I was instantly hooked!

Learning to identify plants can be very overwhelming to the uninitiated. The easiest way to start is to learn from others. BUT, if you don't have a local plant enthusiast, please don't despair. Spend some time flipping through plant books that identify what is in your are in season now. Peterson's Field Guides are a good beginner i.d. book, along with some others that I mention in another post. The more plants you learn, the more easily you can determine the family/genus/species of other plants.

On my regular hiking or jogging routes, I may see a plant in fruit or flower that is unfamiliar. Upon return to my house, I look it up in my identification books, starting the tentative identification process. But what about those plants that just elude identification? Something that looks like it should be edible. A fruit that looks downright delectable but remains untouchable because I JUST CAN'T FIGURE OUT WHAT THE DARN THING IS!!

Well, herein lies a big problem with plant identification for the neophyte; some plants can't be 100% positively identified. Ummm, what is this, you say? How can a plant be absolutely identified if it may not really "exist" in any plant classification.

Unfamiliar Chickweed in the desert
The good news is that although you may not be able to determine a species, with some detective work you can narrow your plant down into a particular family and genus. There are some plant families I would not mess with unless I could determine a genus AND species. Nightshades (Solanaceae) and parsleys (Apiaceae) come instantly to mind ; very bad if you screw up i.d.'ing one of these. However, some plant genuses are fairly benign, regardless of the species. Mints (Lamiaceae), mustards (Brassicaceae), and roses (Rosaceae) are examples. 
One way plants are classified is through their reproductive methods. Other than algae (such as seaweeds), and mosses, the plants we are interested in reproduce through seeds.  Seeds come from flowers or cones.  Therefore, to determine a plant family requires observation of the plants during a period of reproduction. A plant's reproductive cycle can be fairly lengthy; sometimes months. However, with the right tools, you can usually figure out a plant family through observations of the flowers.

One tool I highly recommend is a small pocket magnifying lens.  I have a very lightweight 2" plastic one that remains in my daypack at all times. Another tool is a camera.  I like to take some pictures of the plants and later identify them while the family is monopolizing the T.V. (what teenagers watch these days, lol!).  Lastly (and most important, IMHO), a tool that I cannot do without is "Botany in a Day" by Thomas Elpel. 

Mr. Elpel takes most of the guesswork out of plant identification and actually gives the reader a sense of "Hey, I can learn this stuff!" I say most, because the book is great for narrowing down most plant families, but the genus and species included in the book are for Montana, where Mr. Elpel resides.  Fortunately, many of the same plants can be found in much of the United States.  Or, at least the reader can narrow down their plant to a family and then genus.

Elpel provides the beginning botanist a cursory education in the parts of flowers, as well as main characteristics of different plant families. This does take a little effort in the beginning, but the learning curve is fairly steep.  Once you get the basics down, then identification of the family becomes easier with each successive plant.  The Family leads to the Genus, which leads to the Species.

Before you know it, you can look at a flower and figure out the genus before you can say "Pea Family." 

Happy Hiking!

1 comment :

  1. Good stuff. I also like "Botany in a Day". Still working through it, but it is making it easier to think in terms of plant "families" instead of memorizing specific plants.
    Also, is a great site. Thanks for a good read!