What makes a good (or bad) beginner’s plant identification class?

Say you have just one or two days to teach the foundations of plant identification. What do you hone in on and what do you gloss over? What left a lasting impression from a plant identification class that you took, good or bad! Any small little factoid or tidbit that continues to stick with you or helped you grasp a difficult concept. What do you wish someone had taught you earlier? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts in the comments section here or over on Twitter.

For several years now I have taught occasional plant identification classes, primarily to Pizzo Group staff, but also to some outside groups and the public. This July I co-presented two beginner’s plant identification classes with Evan Barker as part of the Pizzo 30 Summer Event Series (celebrating the company’s 30-year anniversary in habitat restoration!). Each class was only a single day in length, with a basic outline of AM indoors and PM outdoors:

  • Basic plant biology and evolutionary history—very quick, just 5-10 minutes on this, explaining how we will focus on flowering plants for the class.
  • Naming of plants (taxonomy)—primarily explaining family, genus, species, and why we use ’em.
  • Naming of plant parts (morphology)—we spend the most time on this section, focusing mostly on leaves.
  • Introduction to our large plant families—Asteraceae, Fabaceae, Lamiaceae, Poaceae, Cyperaceae.
  • Resources for plant identification—books, websites, how to take good photos, how to use iNaturalist app/website.
  • How to use a dichotomous key—a very simple example that we run through together.
  • Throughout the morning we tape in ~10 plants into workbooks and use them as examples for, e.g. simple vs. compound leaves.
  • Afternoon is a walk through a site going through specific plant examples.

I have participants fill out evaluation surveys after every class. The story is, one day is pretty rough, especially for starting to grasp some of the more obscure morphological terminology. Some requested that we provide the materials ahead of time so that they have an evening to study up on the terminology.

It’s also a hard balance between teaching someone how to identify plants yourself and how to identify specific species. I tend toward the former so that the class is most useful to them going into the future (teach someone to fish…), but I have definitely received some feedback that not enough plants or plant families were covered, specifically weedy/invasive species, as the most recent participants have primarily been landscape managers/technicians of some sort or another.

We have had participants fill out the evaluation forms at the end of the morning session, but my impression from personal experience is that the PM “wildflower walk” is probably not very helpful in the long-term as few people can effectively take notes quickly enough while on the move and so the information is probably not retained as well as an indoor session.

The sections on how to use iNaturalist and our technique of taping in and annotating plant specimens (shamelessly stolen from Justin & Dana Thomas at the Institute of Botanical Training) were rated as very helpful. I recently found this Botany Depot website by Lena Struwe, which has class materials that I’m excited to peruse and incorporate a few into my next class.

That said, all of my feedback from the evaluations have been from people for whom plant identification may be a brand new field of study. So, I’m interested in feedback ranging from those still just dabbling to seasoned amateur or professional botanists. Again feel free to comment below, on Twitter, or email me directly. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “What makes a good (or bad) beginner’s plant identification class?”

  1. “Botany for Gardeners” (3rd ed.) by Brian Capon

    Here is a book well suited to those just beginning to botanize. It is remarkably accessible yet explains clearly, concisely, and completely. Explanations are also presented at a consistent level that omits scholarly jargon and pedantic detail. Often when the explanation is complete, the author points out the limit of current knowledge.

    An example: Scientists have determined that hormones effect growth processes by moving their location within the plant up, down, or away from the sun. However, scientists don’t know how they actually move. The author points out that hormone molecules are far too small to be effected by gravity in the normal way. The reader is left confident that the explanation is complete and perhaps a bit grateful to be let in on the scientists’ limitations.

    This is a welcome feeling for a complete beginner, such as I.

  2. That sounds like an interesting challenge. You’ve covered some important things that many people might not consider (e.g., “how to take good photos”). I think the first time I really grasped the utility of a dichotomous key was when I was at The Outdoor Academy (high school sophomore) and we had an assignment to find and draw a wildflower while on a hike at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, then later to use our drawing & notes to key it out using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Now I want to see if I can find that drawing – pretty sure it ended up being Caulophyllum thalictroides. That probably wouldn’t work for a day-long crash course, though. I have never taken a proper plant ID class myself (although we may have had a little ID when I took Plant Biology in college), so I definitely learned the slow way (and re-learn many things every year).

    On a related topic, I periodically interview candidates for an internship in my office that involves a fair amount of field botany, and have to try to determine (often over the phone) applicants’ botanical knowledge in 20-30 minutes. I try to aim for a combination of specific local plant knowledge (e.g., which plants people can name from photos) and general botanical background (e.g., what characters people would note when encountering a new wildflower for the first time if they didn’t have a field guide handy). This often serves to bring my expectations for an intern back in line with reality (especially the local botany portion), while at the same time giving me a sense of how quickly someone might be able to learn new plants/floras. I have been refining the questions I use for this over the last few years, but it’s definitely still a work in progress.

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