Someone asked me recently how to learn the local plants. The answer is practice and time! I took three years of Mandarin language courses during grad school, and the process of learning to read and write Chinese characters is really similar to learning to identify plants. I learned to read and write by recognizing each character’s component strokes, then recognizing the component characters making up the new character, then recognizing whole multi-character words, then phrases, and so on. Much like the component strokes of a character, plants are identified by components such as leaf margins and petal structure, which eventually can be seen as one whole “character”. All of this takes a lot of effort, and repeatedly seeing the same plant species (reading the same “character”) many times helps. Using dichotomous keys can be mystifying and full of jargon at first. I got started with a photographic guidebook and then moved on to text-only dichotomous keys.

As an example of my plant-learning process, I am posting below some excerpts from my hiking journal. Over the last several years, I have learned bit by bit what the component characteristics of different plant (and some fungi) taxa look and feel and smell and taste like, gradually expanding the number of plants I recognize. Physically writing and drawing out what I experience has helped me commit these characteristics to memory. Identifying plants really is a whole-body experience and I get a lot of satisfaction from even just identifying what family a plant is in; it makes me feel like I am surrounded by familiar friends out on my hikes. I hope you enjoy perusing my field sketches!

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