Plant Taxonomy – It Can Be Downright Humbling, Yet Fascinating (Part 1 of 2)

Outdoor Opportunities By COL(Ret.) Grey D. Berrier II

This past Sunday evening, I received a text from my sister-in-law. It contained a photo of an unknown shrub with prominent berries, along with a short message. Apparently, my brother had come across this particular plant on their property in Eastern PA. Her message read, “Not sure what it is, but figured you might know.” It was just before bedtime when I saw her text and I thought, “I’m really going to dust some cobwebs from the old brain cells tonight.” At first glance, I had a pretty good idea what the plant was, based on its leaves and distinct berry arrangement, but I challenged myself to reach way back in my memory while I slept and pull out the scientific Latin name I had to memorize some 35-years prior as an undergrad at Penn State. As a Wildlife Science Major, I had to take a wide variety of courses to fulfill the requirements to graduate. In addition to the requisite Wildlife Management courses, there were Forest Science courses, which included Dendrology (the study of trees) and the highly intense and somewhat dreaded Plant Taxonomy. Now, Plant Taxonomy is the formal study of plant identification and you may be thinking, “How hard can that be?” Well, there are approximately 2,100 species of plants native to Pennsylvania and then there are several hundred more non-native species that were either deliberately introduced into the wild or have flourished as an invasive species. Our professor thought it was appropriate that burgeoning wildlife biologists should memorize at least 10% of the fl ora native to “Penn’s Woods”. So, we had to be able to identify 210 native plant species by their standard common name, their scientific Latin name, any “nicknames” some people may call it, and a few interesting facts: such as whether it is edible or poisonous to humans, what wildlife species consume it, what its flowers or fruits/berries look like, how it’s pollinated (insect, wind, etc.), where it’s typically found, and other uses it might have (i.e. medicinal). He also threw in another 21 non-native plants, just because he could, since he felt that invasive species now made up approximately 10% of the flora we would encounter afield. There you have it, we had to memorize detailed information on 231 plant species found in PA, and that didn’t include any trees, since he felt we were already being tested on them in our Dendrology class. Needless to say, as was my habit, I carried 3” x 5” cards with me just about everywhere that semester to study as time permitted and that even included while hunting. In addition to memorizing those 231 species, we had to be able to use our textbook, a formal plant taxonomy guide, to systematically identify any of over 2,000 other species of plants found in PA. This wasn’t your typical field guide with photographs. The plant taxonomy guide was an 800-page systematic flowchart that enabled you to look at the characteristics of any tree, shrub, bush, vine, or wildflower, and then based on what you are seeing, progressively narrow it down to the correct plant Family, Genus, and Species. (Remember, one person’s weed is another person’s wildflower.) In addition to our lectures, we had a weekly lab that included numerous “Field Walks”. There, the professor would take his 18 students to a woods or field, and require us to identify whatever he picked out. (Keep in mind, in any woods or field, there are typically hundreds of plant species growing, not counting the trees.) The first three rounds, everyone typically had to identify something off our 231 required memorization list, but after that you could count on getting at least two different species that required consulting your taxonomy guide. Needless to say, you learned from identifying your designated plants and listening to your peers identifying theirs. Encountering at least 90 plant species each “Field Walk” (18 students X 5 different species/person) made the time go by quickly and you learned a lot in the process. Next week, we’ll look at why plant identification is a valuable skill for everyone and I’ll share what the mystery plant was in the photo I received. God Bless, Be Safe, and Great Outdoors! ©WBB 2019

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