I must admit that my nature geek rating sometimes ventures into the red zone during these balmy summer months. I search through my plant keys seeking out the diagnostic features that will allow me to identify one plant from another, check out the butterfly charts to see if that one my mom saw in Argentina could be the same one we see in our own backyards in Ontario, and delve into the bird book to see if the little flitting creature that has just passed overhead is native or introduced.
I am often pleasantly surprised when my enthusiasm for such exploration and identification meets with interest in others; I could, after all, understand if my passions seemed a little eccentric to some. But it seems that people, when given the chance, like to learn, to explore, to find out about their surroundings. I thought that, since this is the time of year when so many people venture into the outdoors, I would offer some ideas on what may be of interest to the budding natural explorer.
Even the new kid on the nature guide block gets the sense that the natural world is immensely complex, and that there are more lifeforms than even the biggest of brains could ever truly comprehend. So in this particular article, out of respect for the relaxed and easy-going summer mind, I will stick to plants alone, and to only a few basic ideas for exploring their ways.
Let’s start with the basics: learning to simply identify plants. The plants we see around us every day come in a few fundamental forms: trees and shrubs (woody-stemmed plants); grasses and grasslike plants (the most unmistakable of the plant types); herbaceous plants (soft-stemmed plants such as wildflowers); ferns; mosses; and the weird categories like fungus (not really a plant) and lichen (a combo of fungal and algal plant matter).
The first thing you might want to think about when heading out to buy or borrow a plant guide is what group you find most interesting. Many people start with trees, as there are far fewer species in this category than in other groups. In Ontario, for example, there are less than 100 native tree species. Learning many of the common ones by sight is, therefore, a realistic task to accomplish over a summer. Other people prefer wildflowers: exploring the environments in which these beauties grow is itself such a lovely experience.
Such a choice should be based purely on interest. Once you start learning about one category you really like, you’ll soon find yourself eager to start learning about all of the others that grow alongside that particular group. For example, if you begin by looking into the world of trees, you will soon wonder about all of the plants that somehow manage to live beneath that shaded forest canopy. If you decide to venture into the wildflower meadow, you won’t be able to help but notice the striking grasses growing in association with the flowers themselves.
The next thing to consider before heading down the nature explorer’s path is what type of habitat you enjoy spending time in. Do you love that odd bog experience, where the ecosystem’s limited nutrient levels necessitate weird and wonderful survival tactics such as those adopted by the carnivorous Sundew plant? Do you prefer the dappled light of a deciduous forest, explored in a comfortable set of hiking boots? Or does the idea of checking out the aquatic plants in the littoral (shoreline) zone of a lake from the comfort of your canoe really get you going?
Completely different plants occupy the various habitat types, and again, your preference as the explorer will guide you to one plant world, and away (at least to begin with), from another. The dry prairie soil can’t support tree life, but provides resources aplenty for the well-adapted grass and herbaceous species that call it home. Similarly, dense forests could never support the sunlovers found in a meadow environment, but provide the ideal conditions for delicate, shade-dwelling understory plants that would be outcompeted in a heartbeat in a sunnier environment.
Next on your list of considerations should be what kind of information you would like to find out about plants. Are you simply interested in knowing one from another? If so, you will need to learn some basic plant parts (leaf vs. leaflet; twig vs. leafstem; petals vs. sepals), and some rudimentary terminology that will help you to determine what it is you’re looking at (e.g. tree vs. shrub; grass vs. reed).
But you may also be interested in some other elements of the plant world. One great topic, for example, is wild plant edibility. Are you curious whether that plant over there with red berries would poison you or sustain you if you were lost and alone in the wilds? If so, try to get your hands on some resources that will help you find out not only what plant you’ve found, but what it may potentially taste like.
How about the historical human use of the plant? The indigenous uses of our native flora are fascinating. Were parts of that tree used in technology, for building, toolmaking, etc.? How were those bitter berries prepared to make them not only edible, but highly prized? How were the medicinal qualities of a plant’s parts integrated into the spiritual beliefs of our First Peoples?
And last but not least, you might like to look at the relationship between a plant and its environment. Certain plants, for example White Ash in my part of the world, indicate dry areas, while Black Ash indicates wetter habitats. While you do have to learn some basic species ID skills first, your exploration may take you directly into determining the surrounding conditions from just the discovery of a certain plant species.
Whatever route you take in beginning on the road to nature geekdom, have fun. The great thing about learning about nature is that there really are no experts. There are so many organisms, such a diversity of life, that no one can truly claim to know it all.
So go out and explore; don’t be afraid of making mistakes, of keying out a plant in all the wrong ways, or of drawing conclusions that make sense to you alone. Ask questions, take pictures, draw sketches, take notes, bring along more books than you should really be carrying or will ever have the chance to look through. It’s summer, and there really is no better time to learn firsthand about the wonders around us.
Venture forth and enjoy!
Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently enjoying working toward a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.