Do you want to learn about native plants? This article should help. I wrote this for the 2007 summer issue of the now defunct Natural Ohio, the newsletter of the ODNR Division of Natural Areas & Preserves.
The Basics of Botanizing
Have you ever walked through a local nature preserve or park and wanted to know more about the plants growing there? Have wildflowers sparked your interest but the number of different plants seems overwhelming? Knowing native plants and wildflowers by name will help you become a better naturalist, as well as give you insight into Ohio’s biodiversity. Ohio has more than 2,500 native and naturalized species and learning to recognize them can be a rewarding and fun experience. Identifying all those plants may seem daunting, but with a little persistence, you can become an expert at identification as well as impress friends and family on your next nature hike.
Start with a good book
A good field guide, such as the classic Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, is a must. This book uses simple plant characteristics, such as leaf type and flower color, to provide quick identification of wildflowers. Field guides focusing on other roups of plants including trees and shrubs are available at your local library
or bookstore. If you are hoping to identify species not included in a field guide, or want specific information about a species’ plant ecology, scientific classification or geographic distribution, you’ll need to turn to a flora.
Used by professional botanists and amateurs alike, a flora is a comprehensive guide to all plants known to grow in a particular area. Floras typically include dichotomous keys which ask simple questions about a plant’s flowers, fruits or leaves. The answer key eventually narrows an unknown plant down to family, genus,
and finally species. The Ohio Academy of Science’s Ohio Flora Project is especially useful in Ohio—several
volumes have been published. If you frequently stray out of state, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Gleason and Cronquist’s Manual of Vascular Plants, which covers all plant species in the northeastern United States.
Document your observations
Write down and draw what you see. Even if you don’t know the name of a plant, describing and sketching the plant in a field notebook will help increase your botanical knowledge. Be sure to note the color and shape of flowers, fruits and the presence of hair, prickles or thorns. Another important tool is a hand lens, which looks like a hand-held magnifying lens. Similar to a jeweler’s loupe, the hand lens lets you identify small features of a plant, such as the number of reproductive parts or the size and shape of leaf hairs. Digital cameras make it easy to take close-up pictures of plants and their flowers. Be sure to turn on your camera’s
macro mode, usually denoted by a flower icon. As you begin to identify more plants, keeping their names in your notebook will help. Sooner than later, you’ll begin to recognize each species like an old friend. Although common names will suffice, all plants have scientific names. Learn those in addition to the common names, and you’re on your way to being an expert.
Don’t go it alone
Learning to identify Ohio’s native plants in the field is a definite challenge, but joining others in the field is a great way to share knowledge and learn more plant names. Attending a Natural Areas Discovery Series event is a great way to meet preserve managers and other botanical staff who are happy to identify plants for visitors. With a little help, you’d be amazed how many plants you can identify in one day.
Know where to go and when to go
Certain habitats and landscapes feature more species than others and they can be spectacular sights when in full bloom. Mature forests are alive with colorful woodland wildflowers in April. The Oak Openings region, west of Toledo, is especially colorful in May. Wetland habitats, such as bogs and fens, are at their botanical peak in June and July. Prairies reach peak bloom in mid-July and early August. Old fields blaze with colorful late wildflowers in September.
Become an expert
Pick a small place—a backyard or local park—and learn the names of all the plants growing there. Start in the spring and document different species as they flower throughout the growing season. If you know the plants in your yard or neighboring park, you’ll quickly learn to spot those in new locations as you explore Ohio. Or, you might consider picking a specific sub-set of plants to study, such as trees. They grow throughout the state in a variety of habitats, and can be identified all year long. Spring wildflowers may
be another excellent choice. Sedges and grasses, often shunned by the beginning botanist, are a fascinating group of plants to study because of their presence in all types of habitats throughout Ohio. Knowing your native plants is a great way to better understand our natural world. It’s a fun and rewarding experience…
now go out and botanize!
Natural Ohio, Summer 2007