The Casual Gardener: How to find a name for that plant

Before the internet, finding the name of new plant wasn't easy but it was possible if with little bit of knowledge and the right apparatus

Professor John Pilcher will present a workshop on the Basics of Plant Identification in Belfast this week

I'M SURE every gardener's been in that situation where they've come across a new, previously unknown plant and desperately wanted to know what its called. This urgency is driven by a fear that they'll not be able to adequately describe it at the garden centre when they finally get there – and of course getting the correct response is reliant on finding a member of staff whose botanical knowledge extends a bit further than their own.

The task of plant identification has been helped immeasurably by recent technology. Digital cameras make photography accessible and cheap, enabling us to snap a shot of the mystery perennial or shrub in question before comparing it with pictures in books or online.

The internet has of course made the task so much easier – though naturally you have to be wary of fake facts.

Apps such as FlowerChecker, PlantSnapp and Like the Garden make flora ID as simple as getting the latest football scores. You can find the name for your plant within minutes either by inputting variables such as flower colour or leaf shape, or by simply uploading a picture which the app then checks against its database.

This coming Thursday, as part of the Northern Ireland Science Festival, there'll be an opportunity to familiarise yourself with some old-school plant identification techniques.

A workshop hosted by retired Queen's University lecturer Professor John Pilcher will explore the methods employed in pre-internet days which are still preferred today by many botanists.

Two of the three essential apparatus for those embarking on a plant identification exercise, according to John, are a good hand lens (magnification x 8 preferably) and what's known in the trade as a ‘flora', a book describing the plant species occurring in an area.

The flora most favoured by Irish planthunters is ‘Webbs', a handbook containing names and descriptions of the 800-odd native Irish plants. Notably, however, there are no illustrations.

It is, the professor concedes, “rather dry”.

The third essential is a dichotomous key, a written tool that allows the user to determine the names of things in the natural world. It is a series of statements offering two choices that describe characteristics of the unidentified organism.

“It divides in two at every stage, and takes you in a particular direction by eliminating certain characteristics,” says John.

“For example, does the plant live in water? ‘Yes' takes you in one direction, ‘No' takes you in another.”

To prove its effectiveness as a method, he tells me how “someone with a good microscope and a certain amount of knowledge” can whittle down the 6,000 available commercial types of timbers to one within half an hour.

Another related method that the workshop will explore is the punched card system, with questions and holes around the edge.

“You fork through with a knitting needle and the ones that fit your description drop out of the pack,” says the professor.

The need to be familiar with the botanical terminology increases as the process proceeds and your options are narrowed down.

“It'll ask questions that can require a little specialist knowledge like: ‘Are the stamens joined together to make a tube or are they completely free?'”

Perhaps the ultimate goal for the botanist or horticulturalist is to find a specimen that defies the key, signalling that they have potentially discovered something new.

John explains how for ultimate confirmation, after checking first in books and on the internet, you must visit a herbarium – an archive of dried and pressed plants held in a museum or botany department, such as the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin or Belfast's Ulster Museum.

Thursday's workshop will examine some plants currently in flower, as well as ferns, of which there are around a dozen species in Ireland.

:: The Basics of Plant Identification takes place on Thursday February 21 from 12:30pm-2pm in the Botanic Gardens Bowling Pavilion. Admission £5 (booking essential).

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