Monday, January 31, 2011

Determining the Name of a Plant (Since They Can't Tell You Themselves)

Today, I spent time identifying one of Kona Kai’s many beautiful plant specimens because someone asked about it on The Galloping Gardener blog (January 24th, 2011 entry).
If a botanist is not certain of a plant’s identity, he/she consults a key. (A key provides a way to determine a plant’s identity by offering a hierarchy of choices.)  If you know a plant belongs to a certain family or genus, you can then choose a more specific key. In this case, I knew the plant was an orchid tree, and there are many species of this plant in the genus Bauhinia. After confirming the genus was correct, I sought out a good key for Bauhinia, which I found online in The Flora of ChinaAlthough this key did not include every documented species of Bauhinia, it includes many common species, among which I found one that matches our tree: Bauhinia purpurea
When you look at a key, much of it looks like it is written in a different language, thanks to terms like “spathaceous,” “abaxially tomentose,” and “suburuloteculentually miscendopricular.”  Just kidding about the last term, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it turn up in a key somewhere. This is because Latin heavily influences botanical terminology; thus it helps to know Latin terms or at least have a dictionary nearby to understand what terms mean.  Two indispensable references I use to help with terminology are Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn and Plant Identification Terminology by James and Melinda Harris.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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