The Patterns Method of Plant Identification An Easier Way to Identify Plants by Thomas J. Elpel, author of Botany in a Day
The study of botany is the study of patterns in plants. Related plants have similar characteristics, and botanists have placed them in groups according to these patterns of similarity. In essence, botanists have created a filing system where all plants with one pattern are placed in one file folder, all the plants with another pattern are placed in another folder, and so forth. The better you can recognize these patterns, the better you will be able to identify plants.
Unfortunately, very few people know about these patterns when they start identifying plants. Most people pick up a book of color photos and flip through hundreds of pages of pictures hoping to find a match. When they finally find a possible match, then they may not know the specific parts well enough to determine if they have the correct answer or something totally unrelated that looks superficially similar.
On the other hand, many people take college courses and learn to use a flora with a key. This method can require hundreds of hours of training to memorize all the botanical terms. The tedium of the process can stifle the enthusiasm of even the most enthusiastic nature-lovers. Ironically, to become proficient with a botanical key ultimately requires at least some knowledge of plant families, and therefore plant patterns. Yet, these patterns are often presented almost as an after-thought, if at all.
A Holistic Approach Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification presents a more holistic approach to learning about plants that starts with an overview of the botanical filing system. Learn how and why the filing system is organized the way it is, and learn to recognize the patterns among related plants. Botany in a Day shows how related plants have similar characteristics for identification and often similar uses. It takes you from the top down through the plant kingdom to plant families, but it does not include a key below the family level.
When you know these basic patterns, then you will recognize something about a new plant, even before you know its individual name. In many cases, you will only need to identify the family pattern to know the edible and medicinal properties of your plant specimen.
Start by learning the patterns for the eight of the world's most common plant families: the Mint, Parsley, Mustard, Pea, Lily, Grass, Rose, and Aster families. These are the same plant families I usually cover when leading a plant walk for budding botanists. The names of the plants are irrelevant at this stage in the process. More important is being able to recognize family patterns. When we come to a new plant, I don't tell my students what the plant is. I ask them. With minimal instruction, students can correctly identify the family for a great number of the plants we encounter. And the more I teach, the less I instruct, since most of us don't remember a whole lot of talk anyway.
Instead, I incorporated the same eight core families into a metaphorical story for my children's book, Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids ages 9 to 99, which I often use in adult classes. In addition, I created the Patterns in Plants Card Game, which also covers these same families. In its briefest form, I can introduce all eight family patterns to adults and kids in about five minutes, as shown in the video at the top of this page. Then we start playing card games such as Memory, Slap Flower, Crazy Flowers, Wildflower Rummy, and Shanleya's Harvest, a game based on the story in the book. Interestingly, kids who miss the introduction can watch the game and quickly grasp the family patterns and game rules without any instruction whatsoever. Our species naturaly excels at pattern recognition!
Most of these eight core family patterns are included in the free online tutorial, or go ahead and order Shanleya's Quest book and card game. The book and card game are especially recommended if your prefer a more intuitive, body-level approach to learning.
Keying out Unknown Plants
Family patterns are amazing tools for plant identification-right up until you encounter a plant that doesn't match any of the patterns you already know. If you are comfortable with the core family patterns discussed above, then you may proceed to the next step and identify new plants using the keys included in Botany in a Day.
Most of the key patterns presented in Botany in a Day can be observed with the naked eye, assuming you have normal vision. However, some of the smaller flowers will require the use of a botanical loupe or lens (also known as a geology loupe, jeweler's loupe, or diamond loupe). You may also need a loupe for observing minute flower parts when identifying individual species within a family.
The keys in Botany in a Day will help you determine the correct family. Turn to that family in the book, and read the description to make sure it is correct, and look for possible matches in the included artwork. Space is limited, however, so you may need to turn to another book for more pictures. Just be sure to use a wildflower guide that is organized by families. Those that are organized by habitats or colors of the flowers will ultimately hinder your progress.
I especially like the Golden Guide to Wildflowers of North America. Without knowing the family name, you can turn to the right part of the book and look through just a few pages to find a match. I've been constantly amazed to find what I am looking for in this little book, anywhere in North America.
With the Golden Guide I can usually find the correct genus, and sometimes it is possible to pin down the exact species. If I need the species information, and I am not able to determine it from my Golden Guide or any of my other wildflower books, then I turn to a local flora with a botanical key.
You could start at the beginning of the key, and progress through it to the proper family, genus, and finally the species, but it is a lot easier to get to your final answer if you short-cut the process with the aid of Botany in a Day and books like the Golden Guide, then use the local flora to go only from the genus down to the correct species. Although the Golden Guide is presently out of print, you may be able to pick up a used copy at a decent price on Amazon. Either edition will work. The books are identical on the inside.
Keep in mind that you will need to know botanical nomenclature to use the botanical key in a local flora, but it isn't such a daunting task when going through only a few lines of text. I recommend using the book Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Guide to help you understand the terms in the key. You will find it amazingly easy to key out flowers by using all of these books together, compared to trying to do it using only a botanical key.
"If you're not a botanist, and you want to begin identifying plants and understanding them, the best book, in my opinion, is Botany in a Day. And this is a book about botany for people who don't really want to know much about botany, they just want to get down to the practical aspects of it."
-- Stacy Krim, UNCG Sustainability (See the YouTube video below.)