How to improve your plant identification skills

HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR PLANT IDENTIFICATION SKILLS

CAREFUL INSPECTION OF THE CONTENTS OF THIS WEB-SITE WILL SURELY OPEN YOUR EYES TO THE  POTENTIAL OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY TO REVOLUTIONISE PLANT IDENTIFICATION BY PROVIDING NOT JUST A SINGLE PHOTOGRAPH (AS IS TYPICALLY THE CASE FOR PRINTED BOOKS)  BUT MANY (PERHAPS 10 OR EVEN MORE) IMAGES OF ALL THE PARTS OF EACH SPECIES - FROM HABITAT TO HABIT, FLOWERS, FOLIAGE, FRUIT,  PARTICULARLY ALL THE CHARACTERISTICS IMPORTANT TO RELIABLY DISTINGUISH IT FROM CLOSELY-RELATED SPECIES AND ARRIVE AT A RELIABLE IDENTIFICATION.

 HARDLY ANYBODY IS TAUGHT HOW TO IDENTIFY PLANTS THESE DAYS.  DESPITE STUDYING FOR A DEGREE IN BOTANY (GRADUATING  BACK IN 1980), I WASN'T! MOST PEOPLE, WITH A COMPLETELY 'UN-TRAINED' EYE, RESORT TO TRYING TO 'MATCH' THEIR SPECIMEN WITH JUST A SINGLE IMAGE IN A BOOK OR FOLLOW SIMPLISTICALLY A KEY.  OFTEN FAILING TO CHECK PROPERLY EVEN BASIC INFORMATION ABOUT THE PLANT THEY THINK THEY HAVE 'IDENTIFIED'.

THEY SELDOM 'CHECK' DETAILS.  DOES THEIR IDENTIFICATION MAKE SENSE?  FEW PEOPLE KNOW WHICH PARTS OF THE PLANT ARE ESSENTIAL TO OBSERVE.  OFTEN, THE CRITICAL 'DIAGNOSTIC' FEATURES OF THE PLANT PHOTOGRAPHED ARE NOT VISIBLE,  MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS TRY TO OBTAIN 'PRETTY' PICTURES AND THOSE SELECTING THE IMAGES TO BE IN A BOOK, TEND TO GO FOR WHAT IS MOST APPEALING TO POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS, AS THEY NATURALLY WISH TO SELL THE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF COPIES.  BUT THESE 'PRETTY BITS' OFTEN HAVE LITTLE OR NO VALUE IDENTIFICATION-WISE!

WHAT IS THE VALUE OF A SUPPOSED 'GUIDE' TO WILD OR GARDEN FLOWERS (AS OPPOSED TO A 'COFFEE TABLE' PUBLICATION WITH OTHER OBJECTIVES), NO MATTER HOW 'LOVELY'  OR CLOLSE-UP THE PHOTOGRAPHS WITHIN IT ARE, IF THOSE USING IT AS AN 'IDENTIFICATION AID' END UP 'MISIDENTIFYING' THE PLANT - THIS HAPPENS A GREAT DEAL!. 

USERS MUST BE TRAINED AS TO WHICH PARTS OF A PLANT NEED TO BE EXAMINED - OFTEN NOT THE OBVIOUS, 'PRETTY' BITS. AT PRESENT VERY FEW PEOPLE KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR, NOR HAVE THE NECESSSARY KNOWLEDGE NOR EXPERTISE TO RELIABLY NAME PLANTS! AND THAT NUMBER WITH THIS SKILL IS RAPIDLY DECREASING.  

I HAVE MANAGED, UN-PAID, ON A SHOE-STRING BUDGET, TO MAKE A SMALL BEGINNING TO ILLUSTRATE WHAT I MEAN. I HAVE TAKEN A SERIOUS INTEREST IN IDENTIFYING PLANTS FOR MORE THAN 40 YEARS. SEE:

Chris photographing wild flowers in the UK (photographed by Matthew Chadwell in 2010)




 IT IS OF COURSE, ONE THING TO RECOGNISE AND DRAW ATTENTION TO 'PROBLEMS', QUITE ANOTHER TO BE ABE TO PROVIDE THE SOLUTIONS - WHICH I CAN, IF ONLY THE "POWERS-THAT-BE" WOULD SUPPORT ME!  DO READ AS MUCH AS YOU CAN DIGEST, OF THE SECTION OF THIS  WEB-SITE ABOUT CONSERVATION. SEE:

 I HAVE ALSO MADE A MODEST START ON AN A-Z PHOTOGRAPHIC GUIDE TO WESTERN HIMALAYAN FLORA, THOUGH CANNOT POSSIBLY PROVIDE FULL COVERAGE OF THE REGION WITHOUT FUNDING TO WORK ON THIS FULL-TIME, FOR MANY YEARS.. THIS GUIDE HAS THE POTENTIAL TO BE MUCH MORE USEFUL THAN TRADITIONAL WRITTEN FLORAS (WHETHER AVAILABLE DIGITALLY OR NOT)  I FIND MOST E-FLORAS OF LIMITED USE OR RELIABILITY (TOO MANY PEOPLE 'BLINDLY' USE THE KEYS IN SUCH FLORAS, NOT ABLE TO CHECK OR QUESTION OFTEN DUBIOUS 'IDENTIFICATIONS') - ALL KEYS SHOULD BE USED WITH CAUTION. 

WHAT IS IMPORTANT IN FLORAS AND VARIOUS GUIDES IS HOW WELL THEY CAN BE USED.  THERE SHOULD ALREADY BE IN PLACE A CONCERTED EFFORT  TO HAVE A WEB-SITE WITH A SELECTION OF GOOD QUALITY, CLOSE-UP IMAGES FOR EVERY SPECIES IN THE UK.  A NUMBER OF US STATES HAVE BEGUN THIS - WHY IS THE UK, ONCE VERY MUCH A LEADER IN THINGS BOTANICAL, ARE TRAILING 'BEHIND-THE-TIMES'?  LEAVING IT TO PIECE-MEAL EFFORTS OF INDIVIDUALS (SOME OF WHOM ARE USING CAMERAS WITH A BETTER MACRO LENS THAN MINE) SCATTERED ACROSS THE COUNTRY (INCLUDING WHAT I AM DOING) MAKES NO SENSE....  PERHAPS THE PROBLEM IS THAT ALMOST ALL OF THE MOST EXPERT AND KNOWLEDGEABLE ON BRITISH FLORA, BELONG TO THE GENERATION ABOVE ME.  I AM IN  MY FIFTIES - MOST OF THEM ARE IN THEIR 70s AND 80s, SOME STILL NOT HAVING E-MAIL, LET ALONE BEING COMFORTABLE USING THE INTERNET OR WITH WEB-SITES.  AND AS THE YEARS PASS BY EVEN THE MOST DISTINGUISHED ARE PAST THEIR PEAK.  I HAVE BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING AN 'ANACHRONISM' OFTEN ENOUGH MYSELF.

PREVIOUSLY, IT WAS PROHIBITIVELY EXPENSE, DIFFICULT AND TIME-CONSUMING TO TAKE LOTS OF PHOTOS OF EVERY PLANT!  I WAS A COMPETENT PLANT PHOTOGRAPHER USING SLIDE FILM UNTIL A FEW YEARS TO GO AND ADMIT TO BEING A 'RELUCATNT' CONVERT TO DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY.  JUST AS I AM NOT A FAN OF COMPUTERS BUT THEY HAVE THEIR USES. BACK THEN IT TOOK A LOT OF EFFORT AND EXPERIENCE, USING A TRIPOD AND CHANGING LENSES TO BE SURE OF SATISFACTORY REULTS AND THEN ONE HAD TO WAIT FOR THE FILM TO BE PROCESSED.  THE OTHER WEEK I TOOK 750+ IMAGES IN LESS THAN 2 HOURS, PHOTOGRAPHING A RELATIVELY SMALL NUMBER OF MOSTLY AQUATIC PLANTS AT A STRETCH OF LOCAL CANAL.  THAT WOULD HAVE CONVERTED TO MORE THAN TWENTY ROLLS OF 36 EXPOSURE SLIDE FILM, SETTING ME BACK OVER £300 - WHICH I COULD NOT HAVE POSSIBLY AFFORDED.  MY RECENT EFFORTS  COST ME NOT A PENNY AND IF YOU THINK I MUST BE USING AN ADVANCED CAMERA, RUNNING TO HUNDREDS OF POUNDS, YOU ARE MKSTAKEN.  I BUY SECOND-HAND ON E-BAY, GETTING A MORE THAN ADEQUATE MODEL PLUS BATTERIES PLUS BATTERY CHARGER AND MEMORY CARD INCL. POSTAGE FOR LESS THAN £100 - WHICH CONVENIENTLY FITS INTO MY SHIRT POCKET.  A TRIPOD STILL HAS ITS USES BUT IT IS NOT ESSENTIAL.  THE LENSES ON DIGITAL CAMERAS ARE AMAZING - WITH SOME PRACTISE YOU CAN ACHIEVE DECENT RESULTS.  THIS SITE WILL SHOW YOU WHICH 'BITS' OF A PLANT TO PHOTOGRAPH.  WITH PATIENCE AND APPLICATION, YOU WILL BE SURPRISED AT WHAT YOU CAN ACHIEVE AND EVEN IF THE RESULTS ARE NOT OF 'PROFESSIONAL STANDARD, EVEN AN IMAGE NOT PERFECTLY IN FOCUS CAN OFTEN REVEAL SUFFICIENT DETAIL FOR IDENTIFICATION PURPOSES.  WHY NOT ALSO BUY A QUALITY x10 OR x15 HAND-LENS AND LEARN TO EXAMINE PLANTS UP-CLOSE (WHICH IS WHAT FIELD AND HERBARIUM BOTANISTS DO) - THE DETAIL IS FASCINATING, OPENING UP A NEW WORLD OF DISCOVERY.

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