Guests on my wilderness hikes frequently ask how to get started in understanding the basic concepts of botany. While they don’t want to become botanists, learn Latin or even take college level classes they would like to learn the fundamentals and be able to identify a particular plant when they come across it in the field. Where do they start?
Along the trail I support their early interests and try to make botany as much fun for them as it is for me and I do this by keeping it simple. I casually introduce them to some of the plant families we encounter using their common names at first. I also talk about the past uses of many of these plants and then I dissect a bloom and explain the role of the basic parts of a flower. Using word pictures and colorful stories helps them to recall those terms. Other suggestions I offer these future botany aficionados include:
1) Buy an inexpensive hand lenses or magnifier and always carry it with you in the field. Get a thin leather string from a bead store or a shoelace and make a necklace that will allow you to carry your lens around your neck. Plastic lens with a maximum of 10 power are available in the five to six dollar range. More power is definitely not better in this case. Potential vendors include hobby shops, sporting goods stores and coin or stamp shops. Bausch and Lomb has several models available on line and Acorn Naturalists has a 5x/10x dual folding pocket magnifier for under $5.00. http://www.acornnaturalists.com/.
2) Carry a small notebook and a pencil or waterproof pen with you in the field to record your observations and to remind you of things you may need to look up later. The use of a small digital camera is another way to capture the details of your flower until you get home. I say this because if you really love the flowers you will resist the urge to pick them thus preserving them for others to enjoy in the future.
3) Buy a basic plant guide that covers your local area, if one is available, and start to learn the basic parts of a flower. Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains, by Nancy Dale, works quite well for Orange County. This field guide is available at the online CNPS bookstore at: http://cnps.org/cnps/publications/.
Another field guide for those in Orange and Riverside Counties is the Flora of the Santa Ana River and Environs: With References to World Botany by Oscar F. Clarke. Copies are available at CNPS.
In the near future Orange County plant lovers will be able to find a new text entitled Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Orange County, California, and the Santa Ana Mountains. Bob Allen, the lead author of this book is an outstanding photographer and it will be the book to have if you live or visit anywhere near this geographic area. The author has a web page with samples of a few of the chapters at: http://www.boballenphotography.com/
Residents of San Diego County will want to look at San Diego County Native Plants by James Lightner, also available at CNPS.
Remember, by using a guide designed for your local area you are much more likely to find the same species in the book as the one you are seeing in the field.
4) See if your local park, landowner or forest ranger has a plant list or guide of the flora for their property. These are frequently available at no cost and are often quite good. Professional “checklists” or inventories are also available at a reasonable fee. The Vascular Plants of Western Riverside County – An Annotated Checklist by Fred M. Roberts is a fine example. Available from CNPS.
A new edition of Roberts’ Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Orange County is also about to be published.
5) Join your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society and go on a few of their field trips. For the most part their members are amateur plant lovers like yourself and you may find them to be a fun group as well as a great resource. Membership in CNPS is available for $25 for those on limited income or $45 for regular annual memberships. Go to cnps.org and click on Join CNPS. CNPS will automatically assign you to your local chapter if you don’t specify one.
6) Consider volunteering at one of your local parks as a land steward. Many pleasant hours can be spent while helping to ensure that our native plants will be here for future generations to enjoy and at the same time, enhancing your knowledge of the plants.
7) Try growing a few native plants in your own garden and you will really get to know them. A good place to buy native plants and to learn more about them is the Tree of Life Nursery in Orange County. http://www.californianativeplants.com
Another great web site for viewing spectacular pictures of the flowers and a site that will also help you learn to pronounce their Latin names is available at http://www.calflora.net and no student of botany should fail to visit Professor Wayne Armstrong’s online text book of natural history at: http://waynesword.palomar.edu/.
If you encounter difficulty in understanding some technical terms in describing parts of the plants I strongly recommend purchasing Plant Identification Terminology, An Illustrated Glossary by James Harris. Available from CNPS.
9) When students ultimately want to begin to learn how to use a plant key I encourage them to look at a very basic and easy to use key entitled Shrubs and Trees of the Southern Chaparral & Mountains, an Amateur Botanist’s Identification Manual by Jim W. Dole and Betty B. Rose, which is available on line from CNPS.
This key for shrubs and trees was designed for beginning students and its authors use everyday terminology in describing the plant parts. This key is actually fun to use and may help prepare you to make the big step up to the state-wide flora that is available on line at: http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/interchange/I_treat_indexes.html.
When you start getting comfortable using The Jepson Manual you will have long since passed the need to read articles like this one, but take time along the way to have fun and smell the roses.
Dick Newell is an Orange County naturalist extraordinaire and an amateur student of botany. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org