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Sitting By a Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens

Words, Words, Words

A head swimming, eyes glazed over, ears-turned-off look that I see when a newbie hears botanical nomenclature, or latin plant names, is a look that I’ve grown accustomed to.  “Face it Kyle, it is a dead language for a reason” or “it’s just too complicated” are a few things that I’ve heard people say as reason not to learn scientific plant names.

I get it, I’m no mechanic, when I hear someone talk about a transaxle or a spline gear, they might as well be speaking Russian.  However, the base of languages starts with a simple vocabulary and can grow into conversation.

Create Relationships

Plant names are just one aspect of creating a relationship with the world around you. Everyday, people pass the same tree as they get into their car and have no clue what kind it is. Moreover, this tree’s branches can hit you in the head as you slam your car door and still, no idea what it is.  The challenge in learning plants seems to be the amount of information that people think they need know before they begin.  The vocabulary surrounding plants can start simple.  Learning a few things opens up the possibility to have a clearer understanding of plants. Learning Latin helps, but isn’t all there is to learning plants.

This blog is meant to be a journey, starting off small and adding to the vocabulary slowly.  The intention is to give anyone the ability to integrate with their ecosystem and begin to look at plants with a keener eye.  With careful observation the world becomes more radiant because you know and understand it.

The Beginning is a very good place to start

Tulip Popular, Liriodendron tulipifera


Starting with the basics, is the key to learning about plants.  Angiosperms or flowering plants are the plants that most commonly surround us.  Plants flower, some are big, some are small, some are edible, some are not.  Angiosperms are separated into two different groups monocots and dicots. These plants make up most if not all of the common plants that greet us at our back door.  Monocots, mono meaning one, have a single leaf when they emerge from their seed and dicots have two.  These groups tell you what to expect from a plant right from the beginning because it dictates how the plant will continue to grow. A good example of a monocot is a grass and pea is a good example of a dicot.



The thing to remember is that not all plants have what most people think of when they think of flowers.  The flower is the reproductive part of plants, this is where the magic happens.  When observing our plant friends I tend to think of flowers in two ways, significant or insignificant.  If you look at a plant with a passing gaze and go “oh, that plant has flowers” then, wow, significant and the opposite is true as well.  This is important because this will help with identification.  Of course, timing is everything and that is why carefully observing your backyard will help you to know when something is having showy flowers or not.

Families of plants are linked together by common characteristics. Learning basic flower structure supports you in finding out which family it belongs.  Knowing the family a plant belongs to starts you on the journey of investigating the specifics.  Maybe a plant family contains edible or poisonous members or medicinal members and a flower helps to give you a hint.

Below are the basic flower types; knowing these aids in learning this fun language.

  Campanulate             Cruciform                      Head                         Spurred                   Papilionaceous

These flower types are key identifiers and if you can learn these, you will enter a new world of discovery.  Campanulate flowers are bell shaped.  Cruciform flowers are cross-shaped, like a crucifix.  Head flowers are a traditional flower type, like a sunflower, or a dandelion.  The Spurred flower type refers to an outgrowth of tissue on the flower itself, like some types of orchids.  Papilionaceous flowers are shaped like a butterfly and can be split into to equal halves.

In the next Blog I will cover leaves and stems, and outline basic ways to ID common trees in your back yard.