Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Identifying Plants

white willow, the bark tea is a natural pain reliever
Learning to penetrate the wall of green - Plants, Learning Plants, identifying plants

Identifying plants gets easier the more you do it. Honest - it's like we recognise our peas and carrots because we have eaten them (some of us ) a lot. Therefore we know what a pea or a carrot looks like, but do we know what a Pea plant or a Carrot plant looks like if we walked past them growing in a verge or someones garden? Do you know that plants from the Pea Family are characteristic by their flowers sharing the features of a banner, wings and keel? That poisonous plants like Water Hemlock may be mistaken for Wild Carrot with dire consequences.

This is why to learn plants we have to get familiar with them - to put in our dirt time, there's a brilliant book called 'Botany in A Day' by Thomas Elpel that helps you really get to grips with plants and plant recognition.

But even before we get to that point, it's a good idea to simply get outdoors into your street or garden.

Start with finding the nearest Poisonous Plant to your doorstep, don't start by testing all the nearest plants on your neighbour's pet dog, start by skimming through a field guide that shows poisonous plants, and imprint the images on your minds eye. Then when you go outside have a look around and see if any plants trigger your memory. Here are some that might possibly catch your eye:-

Buttercup, Rhodedendron, Foxglove, Spurge

These are POISONOUS Plants. Once we know which ones we may stumble across we know what we have to remember when searching for edible plants, because the problem we encounter while foraging is look-alikes. It's very easy in our enthusiasm for learning a new plant to pick a potentially lethal look-alike and try it. That's why starting with learning poisonous plants means you can point out with more reliabililty which plants you should leave alone.

This is not to deter you from exploring the world of plants, but simply to provide the best framework to go about it. Some of us have photographic memories, but for those of use whose memories take a longer time to receive the information; so that a Black Bryony were it newly introduced to us, would remain in our mind's-eye looking like Black Bryony (the same as the carrot has because we remember Bugs Bunny eating one when we were four years old) it is necessary to improve the settings of our minds eye.

Mastering a platform for learning plants means that you then have more confidence. So we begin by exercising our minds eye. When we go out; try going to one spot - a favorite spot on a daily basis - then look for the plants. Notice what the twigs look like in winter, notice what new flowers appear successively. When you get home you'll want to look it up. You remember you saw a 'tall pink plant'. It's not a lot to go on. Opening the field guide you find a hundred pink plants none of them to scale; with latin names thrown in to boot.

So not only do we have to imprint the vague image on our mind's eye - we have to know what to look for. It's like meeting two people with the same name, two Jeffs or two Janes. We notice that one of the Jeffs was shorter than the other, so subconciously we remember one as Tall Jeff who is the one that works as a Hotel Manager. One of the Jane's had blond hair, and the other had dark hair - the blond one is the Legal Secretary and the dark one is the Singer. The problem is most of us have gotten slack and take in the least amount of information we need to get along. If you're a policeman though you probably could guess at both the Jeff's and the Jane's height and weight, and know exactly what they're wearing and be able to guess at their occupation or where they come from. While noticing this you might have also sussed who had entered and left the room while you were talking and what they were eating.

It's a question of awareness. To really function well at IDing useful plants in a wild setting you have to remember where things are like remembering where the washing powder aisle is in the supermarket. You have to notice things. Why do you have to know the Poisonous Foxglove before the Edible Primrose? For the good reason that in the Spring when you are likely to forage for the Primrose leaves; the Foxglove leaves looks almost exactly the same. What are the differences? Look in your field guides or online at the leaves of each. The best Field Guide is a botanist, a Professional or friend/family with a sound knowlege. A Primrose Leaf has bubbly or rounded edges while a Foxglove has pointy or 'serrated' edges - also the veins of a Foxglove leaf run fairly parallel to the stem, upwards to the point of the leaf, whereas the Primrose leaf the veins go outwards more directly. So to tell the difference we need to look at the leaves, compare them if possible; to look at the shape, the veins, and the edges and remember them.

Plants have their own preferred habitats; like we prefer certain climates. Some like disturbed ground, or wetlands; others like dry areas or shady places. The more time we spend outside noticing, the more adept we get at identifying them.Spend time with your field guides, learn how to use them but don't let them use you! You can get lost in field guides.

A good idea is to journal your plants. If you remember that new purple flower on the corner. Go out count it's petals, look at it's leafs - learn the vocabulary for this like 'basal rosettes' - get a solid description just as you would if you were reporting a criminal to the police. Get the plant's 'number plate'. When you have a really good description preferably in your head or written down - Go home and match it up with your field guides. Maybe there's two similar. I had an example of this recently...

My family have not long ago moved to France. We all kept noticing these blossoms hanging down from trees with leaves like a Rowan, my Dad said "like Wisteria" even though its not really like Wisteria. The leaves were rounded so they definitely weren't Rowan. Finally I poured over my field guide and came up with two that looked very similar a Clammy Locust and a False Acacia (also known as) Black Locust and for a little while I wasn't sure which it was. Then I really looked at the leaves and the blossom and noticed that the leaves after the top two were alternate, not opposite and that the blossoms were more yellow and had a fragrance to them. The False Acacia it says has a sweet fragrance and I noticed the Clammy Locust didn't and that the CL had opposite leaves and the blossoms were more pink.

So on my own, and with regard to the bark of the tree as well I'm fairly confident they're False Acaia or Black Locust. Obviously if I was with someone who had fifty years plant experience (not my Dad) I'd be more confident with their confirmation. From the following information I know that if it came to using the parts of this tree I'd cook it first!

This is what it says on the site about Black Locust:-

All parts of the plant (except the flowers) and especially the bark, should be considered to be toxic. The toxins are destroyed by heat.

Seed - cooked. Oily. They are boiled and used like peas. After boiling the seeds lose their acid taste. The seed is about 4mm long and is produced in pods up to 10cm long that contain 4 - 8 seeds. A nutritional analysis is available. Young seedpods - cooked. The pods contain a sweetish pulp that is safe to eat and is relished by small children. (re: previous reference - this report is quite probably mistaken, having been confused with the honey locust, Gleditsia spp.) A strong, narcotic and intoxicating drink is made from the skin of the fruit. Piperonal is extracted from the plant, it is used as a vanilla substitute. No further details. All the above entries should be treated with some caution, see the notes at the top of the page regarding toxicity. Flowers - cooked. A fragrant aroma, they are used in making jams and pancakes. They can also be made into a pleasant drink.

Medicinal Uses
Febrifuge. The flowers are antispasmodic, aromatic, diuretic, emollient and laxative. They are cooked and eaten for the treatment of eye ailments. The flower is said to contain the antitumor compound benzoaldehyde. The inner bark and the root bark are emetic, purgative and tonic. The root bark has been chewed to induce vomiting, or held in the mouth to allay toothache, though it is rarely if ever prescribed as a therapeutic agent in Britain. The fruit is narcotic. This probably refers to the seedpod. The leaves are cholagogue and emetic. The leaf juice inhibits viruses.

Other Uses
A drying oil is obtained from the seed. An essential oil is obtained from the flowers. Highly valued, it is used in perfumery. A yellow dye is obtained from the bark. Robinetin is a strong dyestuff yielding with different mordants different shades similar to those obtained with fisetin, quercetin, and myricetin; with aluminum mordant, it dyes cotton to a brown-orange shade. The bark contains tannin, but not in sufficient quantity for utilization. On a 10% moisture basis, the bark contains 7.2% tannin and the heartwood of young trees 5.7%. The bark is used to make paper and is a substitute for silk and wool. Trees sucker freely, especially if coppiced, and they can be used for stabilizing banks etc. Wood - close-grained, exceedingly hard, heavy, very strong, resists shock and is very durable in contact with the soil. It weighs 45lb per cubic foot and is used in shipbuilding and for making fence posts, treenails, floors etc. A very good fuel, but it should be used with caution because it flares up and projects sparks. The wood of Robinia pseudoacacia var. rectissima, the so called 'Long Island' or 'Shipmast' locust, has a greater resistance to decay and wood borers, outlasting other locust posts and stakes by 50 -

These are the sorts of things you want to journal and also draw a picture including the salient points to remember - the drawings don't have to be like a Rembrandt. Don't spend to long, twenty minutes should be enough.

So that's an introduction to plant lore and learning to Identify Plants. Start with your common plants, learn the poisonous ones.
Find out the uses of plants. The more familiarity you have the more experience and confidence you gain. I hope this inspires you to get into the woods. Take care, and use your common sense.

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