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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Introduction to Botany for Herbalists 

Notes from class

Botany is the study of the plant kingdom, or plant sciences.  It is especially important to understand if you are an herbalist that harvests from the wild.  It is an area that many herbalists struggle with.  To be a good Botanist you must try to study plants as often as you can.  Not only are you learning a new language, but a new way to look at the world around you.  The more closely you look, the more time you take to look the more you will come away with.  Along with botany, comes the study of ecology or how plants work together with other things their environment, including us.  If you are Wildcrafting, or Wild Harvesting plant material it is important to hone your skills as a botanist and ecologist.  All herbalists, whether wildcrafting or benefit from having a basic understanding of botany.  Botany classes can cover everything from the naming of plants, evolution,  growth cycles of plants, anatomy and physiology of plants, plant reproduction, and plant identification.  For the purposes of this brief glimpse I will focus on Plant Taxonomy, heirachical arrangement, plant anatomy, reproductive anatomy, fruits, and learning to read botanical descriptions. 
Identifying through names, or Plant Taxonomy.  
In Botany, Latin is the agreed upon official language to name plants by.  Latin is  called a "dead" language, it doesn’t change and evolve.  The names of the plants stay the same, (or not!). The names of plants oftentimes have to do with a characteristic, color, botanist who is said to have “discovered” a plant, or a bloom pattern.  For example, Calendula is named so because it was thought that is bloomed according the Calender—the first day of the month.  Monarda was named after Spanish botanist,  Nicolas Monartes.  For herbalists we are most interested with the Genus and species of a plant, though learning the Family characteristics of plants is also helpful.  Plant are most often referred to botanically by their Genus and species.   Calendula officinalis or Monarda citriodora.  There may be many species,  so it is somewhat backwards to the way humans name themselves.  For example if I was a plant I would be Telkes nicole my brother would be Telkes chris etc….
Plants are put into what is called a Taxonomic  hierarchy, larger groupings that subdivide to smaller and smaller ones by a series of yes and no questions.
Kingdom /                        (Subclass)
              \               Class /                                    Family
              Phylum /                       (Suborder) /
                            \           Order /
                            Class /                                          Family                        Species
                                     \             (Superfamily) /                      Genus /
                                     Order /                                    (Tribe) /
                                                \              (Subfamily) /
 Family /                                Species
                                                             \              (Subgenus) /
 Genus /
                                                                       \              (Subspecies)
 Species /
                                                                                                              (Varieties and Forms)

Identifying Plants Visually
Some of the first questions to ask to be able identify a plant are:
Is this plant a gymnosperm(cone bearing) or angiosperm(flower bearing)?
More of the time, depending on where you live of course, the plant is flower bearing--or an angiosperm, so the next question would be
Is this plant a monocot or dicot?
There are several characteristics that differentiate a plant but many times it tends towards being dicots more than monocots--so for the purposes of the class that goes along with these notes:
Once you have figured out what division of the Taxonomic heirarchy you are in,  you can start to figure out the family--which in turn leads you to the Genus and species.   Field identification tools utilize leaf shape, arrangement of leaves, if woody the bark will be described, flowers, flower arrangements, and fruits as defining ways to gauge what you are looking at.  Having tools to measure, look more closely at things, and even take pics and samples can be helpful.  One of the easier ways to start to learn to identify plants is through the flowers and/or fruits.  Here,as an example,we will look more closely at the more common dicots of the angiosperm division.

Basic Anatomy of a flowering plant(Angiosperm)
The vegetative portion of plants can be further identified by bark types, leaf structure and arrangements, root types, color, smell and texture
Reproductive parts of a flowering plant(angiosperm): The attached link shows the basic anatomy of a "perfect" and "complete" flower.  Flowers are then described by how they are arranged on a stem as an inflourescense.

Fruit Types: Dry versus Wet fruits

Learning how to read botanical descriptions
1 Start with field guides, not floras
2 Read a paragraph slowly out loud.
3 Reread the paragraph stopping at every word you don’t know and look it up
4 Reread the paragraph again and look at the plant as you reread it again.
Make this a common practice for yourself…waiting rooms, buses, as you are going to bed, right when you wake up.  The more you practice the easier it gets.

2 examples of a description of calendula:

“Calendula is a bushy, aromatic annual, with branched stems and lanceolate leaves. Flowers have yellow to orange ray florets, produced from spring to autumn”

“annual plants native to southern Europe. They grow 1½ to 2½ feet high. Their branching stems are covered with simple, alternate leaves and they produce large flowers in different hues of yellow and orange in the summer. These plants are easy to grow. The main kind is C. officinalis (the Common Pot Marigold), it has light green leaves and short stems bearing single or double, orange, yellow, cream, or white flowers that are 2-3 inches across.”