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

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


Comedian Jeff Foxworthy, well-known for his “If …, you might be a redneck” routine, also does a bit about Jell-O. When a woman tells him, “You can make it go back to a liquid by squishing it through your teeth.”, he responds with, “How do you acquire such knowledge?” When it comes to plant taxonomy, I find I’m regularly asking myself a similar question. For instance, salicylic acid, the precursor of aspirin, is found in the bark of willow trees. How did people first learn to chew on willow bark to get rid of their headaches? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. A few weeks back on June 22, my wife, son, and I went down to Old Bedford Village off Exit 146 of the PA Turnpike for their “Wild West Weekend”. There, amongst the dozens of cowboy reenactors portraying the year 1875, was a couple from Maryland who reenact as apothecaries (she is a licensed pharmacist, who does this as a hobby). Set up in OBV’s historic apothecary, they had an English physician’s handbook from the 1780’s which gave the recipes for medicines for hundreds of ailments, made primarily from plants. Back in the day, physicians and apothecaries had to be proficient plant taxonomists to practice their crafts; and that’s to say nothing about the knowledge of plants and their uses passed down amongst Native Americans and the early settlers of our country. Before the day of running to the drugstore to pick-up medications, people knew and passed down plant identification and what purposes each plant served. (That knowledge of nature seems to have disappeared after the Great Depression.) My maternal grandfather taught me a lot about plant identification. However, my formal Plant Taxonomy course at Penn State increased that knowledge ten-fold. Wildlife professionals need to know what plants each species consumes. Take for instance, white-tailed deer. They eat literally hundreds of different plant species here in PA; so, if you’re doing scatology (the dissection of scat/poop), postmortem stomach content analysis, or a field study to identify the plants deer are feeding on, you need to be proficient at plant taxonomy in order to properly identify the plants/plant materials involved in your study. Hunters can benefit from increasing their plant identification skills, since deer don’t just eat corn, acorns, and apples, like some outdoor TV shows might lead you to believe. “Find the food, find the deer” holds true throughout the year. We know early humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Well, plant taxonomy is currently gaining momentum with the growing outdoor “gatherer” community, as increasingly more people head to the woods or fields in search of wild edibles. Many people are rediscovering Euell Gibbons’ 1973 classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and consulting other more recent field guides to help identify which plant’s leaves, stems, roots, berries, and nuts are edible and quite nutritious; and which plants (sometimes appearing similar to edible varieties) are poisonous and potentially harmful, even fatal. If you decide to join the growing number of folks gathering wild edibles, whether it’s nuts, berries, plants, or mushrooms, please ensure you consult a good field guide or use an online reference to make absolute positive identification … and then enjoy the abundance of your gathering (hint: some wild edibles, like some vegetables, are an acquired taste). Chances are you already have some basic knowledge of plant taxonomy, I’ll bet you can identify the common wildflower: dandelion, which can be an edible (and you thought it was only a weed). I’d also recommend you learn to identify poison ivy, so you can avoid the unpleasant contact dermatitis, and mountain laurel, which is our PA state flower and grows abundantly in more remote areas. By the way, the mysterious bush with abundant red berries my sister-in-law asked me to identify was red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa); which while not abundant is fairly common throughout PA. When it comes to plant taxonomy – “How do you acquire such knowledge?” – through study and lots of practice! REMINDER: PA 2019-20 resident antlerless license applications will be accepted by county treasurers starting Monday, July 8, 2019. So, if you haven’t purchased your PA 2019-20 hunting license yet, you’ll want to do that this weekend and then get your pink envelope in the mail! God Bless, Be Safe, and Great Outdoors! ©WBB 2019

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