Saturday, January 30, 2010

Winter Shrubs and Identification Comments

Managers of native ecosystems must be able to identify the components of the landscape and the role they play in the complex system. A manager without this knowledge is like a coach who doesn’t know the names or capabilities of the players on his team. When I walk, I like to call up the names of the plants I’m seeing. If you do this often enough, the identification comes naturally as you scan the landscape. It’s like looking out at a crowd and having all the names of the friends you see come automatically into your mind. To gain that kind of familiarity with plants, you first have to learn some special identifying characteristics, so you can readily identify what you are looking at. This is more difficult during the winter, but there are many features that are readily observable. One of my favorites is the catkin, a type of long, pendulous flower cluster. There are only a few woody plants that produce catkins, so seeing this one item has instantly narrowed your choice of plants. In this case the catkin belongs to the Hazelnut, Corylus americana.

Once you can identify a species, you need to spend time with it until you construct a mental image that means to you just one specific type of plant. We do this with people all the time. At a glance, most people can identify someone they’ve just met in passing, like a store clerk or customer or annoying guy from the basketball game. They may not be able to give any descriptive detail, but they have that mental image that allows them to make a positive ID. My mental image tells me this is a clump of Hazelnut.

Buds are a good thing to key in on. This is a rather distinctive bud of the Blackhaw, Virburnum prunifolium. Determining it to be a Viburnum is fairly easy. I can only call it to species because I’ve examined it through leaf, flower, fruit and winter.

When I see thick, tangled and pointy, I automatically think Viburnum. The instant recognition brought on by a mental image is good, but following that, you still need to know some basic characteristics in order to confirm your first impression. The image is just a good tool for quickly narrowing your choices.

Spines make tood identifiers. Your most likely choices when a bud is flanked by a pair of thorns are Black Locust or Prickly-ash. Remember that the Prickly-ash has the rusty bud and you’ve arrived at your identification.

The Prickly-ash shrubs are fairly openly branched and the branches always remind me of something with a slightly arthritic bend.

Again we have some distinctive buds. These are destined to form the early spring blooms of the Fragrant Sumac.

Fragrant Sumac seems to be a shrub trying to be a vine. Branches will fall to a horizontal position and often root where they touch the soil. Looking inside the tangle of branches reveals the larger horizontal stems. Plant identification can be difficult, but if you take the time to really get to know the plants you see regularly, the whole process will become easier. Remember that is supposed to be an enjoyable activity.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to become more familiar with plants, beginning with those near my own home and town. I know some and I know some of the uses of others, but it's always exciting for me when I see a plant and I can conjure up the name. I love botany, esp. ethnobotany. Thanks for the tips on remembering plants by reminds me of the Earth's Children series by Jean Auel... Ayla knows so many plants from memory and their uses and can conjure up those images in her mind. I hope to one day be skilled in plant identification so I can apply it in a variety of environments.

    Thanks for the comment on my blog! I'm also looking forward to reading through your old posts and to see new ones.