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The Tropical Plant Identification Course

Lee Davies
22 May 2013
Blog team: 

Each year several of the Herbarium botanists organise and run a Tropical Plant Identification Course.

The purpose of the two-week course is to introduce participants to around 70 of the main tropical plant families, and describe their key characteristics and means of identifying them. This year I was on that course.

I will preface this by mentioning I don’t come from a botanical background. Far from it: I am used to looking at and identifying marine invertebrates that have been dead for around 340 million years. What I do have is a fair bit of experience in curating natural history collections and, more recently, herbarium collections as part of the Wet Tropics Africa team in the Herbarium. In the six months of carrying out this role I have picked up a smattering of aptitude at identifying plants as they come back from collection trips. So it was with a view to beefing up my abilities that I embarked on this course.

Photo of teacher taking the tropical plant identification course

Herbarium specimens featured heavily to reinforce the theory behind plant identification (Image: Caroline Pannell)

Cosmopolitan

There were 15 of us attending from all over the world; from Brazil to Ethiopia, Colombia to Holland. It seemed rude to ask but I think it is fair to say there was a mixed level of experience at plant identification amongst the group.

Photo of teacher holding a feather

The course tutor addressing his pupils (Image: Caroline Pannell)

During the two week course, each day was broken down into teaching sessions of one and a half hours, each covering a few, often closely related, plant families; the emphasis being on pointing out the key characteristics that are needed to ID that family. Each session ended by getting participants to look at herbarium specimens and identify them to one of the families we had just been learning the theory about. This kind of arrangement worked really well for me; I got to make some notes and then look at the things I had just been learning about, solidifying them in my memory.

Hands on

The course wasn’t all lessons and herbarium sheets; we also went for a jaunt around the glasshouses in the gardens to look at living examples of the plants we had been looking at on herbarium sheets. This sealed the deal really; linking together the theory, the herbarium specimens and the living plants. I wouldn’t say the course was easy as such but it was definitely straightforward and in a neat, logical format. Some families are a lot harder than others and some are far more confusing than others; that said, all of the information is presented for you and you can go back over your notes at a later date.

Photo of pupils among plants int he Palm House
Image: Caroline Pannell

Looking at the living collections in the Palm House (Image: Caroline Pannell)

Summing up

At the end of each week there was a small test to recap the previous week’s work (can I brag and say I did really well on this?). The tests give you an indication of how you are picking up the information and certainly point to where you need more practice.

Team photo of pupils on the tropical plant identification course
Image: Caroline Pannell

There always has to be a group photo! (Image: Caroline Pannell)

All in all I learned a LOT over these two weeks. Much of it will be used day to day and the notes I made will probably be a handy reference for months if not years to come. It is also definitely worth mentioning that meeting people from herbaria all over the world, chatting and getting to know them and their work has been invaluable and made the experience even greater.

- Lee Davies -


 

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