Sunday, September 13, 2015

Botany as a second language

I can readily relate to whether leaves are opposite or alternate on a plant's stem. I've learned that a basal (e.g., base) leaf is found at or near the base of a plant. (Much of the time, other growth is so thick around the base of a plant I'm looking at that I can't see basal leaves unless I want to start carrying a machete to clear the area.) Then we get to words like raceme, bract, and panicle, and I begin to feel as though I'm learning botany as a second language. The other thing I'm trying to figure out is whether it would help to learn to identify at the "family" level and then work my way into plant genus and species specifics or if it makes more sense to go all the way to genus and species identification for each plant that interests me.

Helianthus occidentalis (Few-leaf Sunflower)
Helianthus occidentalis (Few-leaf Sunflower)
Photo by J. Harrington

Helianthus occidentalis (Few-leaf Sunflower)
Helianthus occidentalis (Few-leaf Sunflower)
Photo by J. Harrington

Two plants that have been blooming in abundance during the past week have triggered all of this sputtering. One is a sunflower, the other an aster. Today I made the mistake or reducing some specimens to possession in expectation that would make it easier to do an accurate identification, plus provide a nice wildflower bouquet from our local roadside. Hah! For the sunflower, Wikipedia lists an even dozen wild sunflowers that grow in Minnesota. There are also plants like ox-eye that look similar to some species of sunflower.

Symphyotrichum lanceolatum (Panicled Aster)
Photo by J. Harrington

Asters are acknowledged to be challenging, especially small, white ones.
"Panicled Aster is the most common of the white asters in Minnesota and throughout much of North America. There are a number of asters with small, white flowers in Minnesota and it can be a real challenge to keep them straight. Panicled Aster is distinguished by a combination of characteristics: ½ to ¾-inch flowers with 16 to 50 rays, generally lance-linear leaves that are hairless except around the edges, stems smooth or hairy in lines, and often 100 or more flowers per plant, sometimes congested on lateral branches. By comparison with other white asters having a generally similar leaf shape, Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), Ontario Aster (S. ontarionis) and Awl Aster (S. pilosum) all have leaves with hairs along the midvein and/or surfaces and (usually) stems covered in hairs, not in lines. Northern Bog Aster (S. boreale) has proportionately narrower leaves, larger flowers about 1 inch across, and is typically a more spindly plant with few flowers.

There are up to 5 varieties of S. lanceolatum (depending on the reference), 3 of which have been recorded in Minnesota;"
Did you notice the phrase "depending on the reference?" At that stage of the game, I claim foul. Here's where I think we're at:

The other day, I thought the yellow flower pictured above was an ox-eye. Today I believe it's Helianthus occidentalis (Few-leaf Sunflower). I had thought that the aster was a Symphyotrichum pilosum (Awl Aster), until I noticed that its range map doesn't include Chisago County, so now I think it's Symphyotrichum lanceolatum (Panicled Aster). As usual, if anyone wants to point me in a different direction, I'll be more than happy to consider it. I never had this much troubled identifying ducks, at least drakes, even in the pre-dawn gray light. With flowers, it's almost as if both drakes and hens are shades of mottled brown all year round. Sigh! I may still try an approach that calls for a magnifying glass, seeing if there's an aroma, paying more attention to leaves and stalks, and bringing a field guide for reference, while hoping all the time that it's the right reference.

Girl Riding a Horse in a Field of Sunflowers

By David Allan Evans 

Sitting perfectly upright,
contented and pensive,
she holds in one hand,
loosely, the reins of summer:

the green of trees and bushes;
the blue of lake water;
the red of her jacket
and open collar; the brown
of her pinned-up hair,
and her horse, deep
in the yellow of sunflowers.

When she stops to rest,
summer rests.
When she decides to leave,
there goes summer
over the hill.

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