From daisies to white helleborines – how to get to grips with your plant ID
Plants provide a great and easy opportunity to connect people with the natural world. For us Forest School practitioners, this gives us plenty of scope, and necessity, to develop our own plant skills. At the most basic, we must have knowledge about any poisonous plants on our site. But for me, the fun really starts once we get to know our plants a bit better: What are they? Where do their names come from? Are they an indicator species, e.g. for ancient woodland? Which medicinal properties do they have? What can they be used for?
As Forest School practitioners we are a bit of a Jack of all trades, and plant ID is just one of many things touched on in Forest School training. Here are my personal top tips for improving your plant skills:
- Be curious
We can only learn if we actually want to learn. Maybe there are some plants on your site, in the school grounds or on your way to work that you have long been curious about? Some people might just call them ‘weeds’ but you might be surprised what you find out about them.
2. Invest in a good ID book
ID books differ mainly in the way they organise plants – and so the way you have to locate them in the book; they can be ordered by colour, habitat, family or date. Some books work with a key but this is where it usually gets a bit technical as you will need to be familiar with botanical terms referring to every little part of the plant, the arrangement of the leaves, symmetry etc.
One of these is ‘The Wildflower Key’ by Francis Rose, which is a great book but certainly not recommended for the complete beginner. Plants are organised by families which can make an interesting read as you find out which plants are related to each other.
ID books that are ordered by colour can be a good starting point. The downside is that you need to be able to see the petals in order to have a go at identifying the plant, and it may take a while to find a specific plant in the book, e.g. when you have to skim through all pages with blue flowers to get to the forget-me-nots.
My personal favourite is ‘Wildflowers of Britain’ by Roger Phillips, which works by date. By date? Yes! You simply open the page with the date of when you have found your flower; most likely you have to skim forwards and backwards a couple of pages but you should find exactly what you were looking for. There are clear photographs and a little bit of a description of habitat and uses. I have been using this for over ten years now and I have found it invaluable. The book has been written in 1977 and is out of print now but you can easily pick up a second hand copy.
The last method I would like to mention is by habitat, which is also great. The Field Studies Council have a whole range of really handy foldout charts covering anything from ladybird larvae to cetaceans, perfect to put in the rucksack. The plant ones include charts on woodland, grassland, playing field plants and many more.
3. Take your ID book with you whenever you are out and about
Plant identification is multi-sensory. Of course, you can just take a photo and ID at home but this will not give you the whole experience and is less likely to stay in your memory. We surely wouldn’t remember stinging nettles so well if we just looked at a picture of them; once stung, never forgotten!
With plants it is not only how they look that is important; touch, smell and taste (with caution, of course!) can be great clues as well. Take hedge woundwort, for example. It has very pretty purple flowers, but what has kept it in my memory is the smell. Just like marmite it divides opinion – some people like it, some say it stinks (I am with the latter) but the smell is a certain giveaway to identifying it. Recently, I have come across it again during a scavenger hunt and discovered that the leaves are actually really hairy and soft. So in this case, look, smell and touch individually all give me some great clues, but together they provide me with 100% certainty.
4. Expand your knowledge
Once you have come to grips with your plant ID, take it further by looking into how you can use plants, either for eating (or drinking), making things or for their medicinal properties. Stinging nettles, e.g. are a really good starting point to give you some confidence as probably everybody can positively identify them (and just in case, even their lookalikes are edible). They have many different uses that are perfect to explore at Forest School, e.g. as tea, nettle crisps or turning them into string.
Once you start actively foraging, you might find that you will develop a new relationship with the landscape around you, constructing a mental map of where to find things that are useful to you. Suddenly, instead of the elder trees you have driven past many times on your way to work you see potential bottles of elderflower cordial.
If you would like to take things further, why not join a foraging or wildflower walk? And if you find you are really keen by now, I can highly recommend having a look at the Field Studies Council; they offer in depths courses for beginners to experts in their wonderful centres across the UK. Be prepared to dream of plants at the end of the day!
5. Get Social
It is always nice to engage with people that share your special interest. You could just go on a walk with a friend who is also keen on plants; take your ID books and see what you can find. Or join your local naturalist’s society or Wildlife Trust for site visits and/or surveys; spending a couple of hours in the field with experts can be a real treat as they can reveal lots of little snippits of useful information.
If you use Facebook you will find a number of groups with a special plant or more general nature focus; besides sparking each other’s enthusiasm it is also a good place to ask for help with the identification of trickier species.
Don’t get disheartened if next spring you feel you cannot remember any plants. Everyone has to do a bit of revision when coming across some plants for the first time in the season. Or the second… The more you are out and about, the more information you will retain, so just continue to explore and keep that ID book within reach.
I hope these tips will help you along on your plant journey. The above are all things that I have found useful; I would love to hear what has helped you getting to know plants. If you like, do get in touch with me via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook www.facebook.com/natureconnectionsglos
FdSc Conservation & Countryside Management, Level 3 Forest School Practitioner