Learning About Maine’s Native Plants
For three days in mid-August, I drove out to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens each morning for a course called “Introduction to Maine’s Native Flora.” The course was part of my certificate program in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture, and it was taught by Melissa Cullina, staff botanist and Director of Education for the garden. Like all classes at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, this one combined lecture and hands-on exercises, time in the classroom and time in the field, and was deliberately kept small to facilitate interaction (there were about 15 of us).
This was a challenging course, with a lot of information to be mastered in just a few days. The goal was for us to be able to recognize and identify a wide range of native plants from a variety of habitats. We were introduced to between 50 and 100 native plants, and had to master 30 of them well enough to be able to look at a sample branch in a vase and identify the plant by botanical name (genus name and specific epithet) and botanical family. I have made it a practice to learn the botanical names of plants, but I hadn’t previously learned the family names, so that was a new challenge. On the morning of the first day, we were introduced to various characteristics that are used to identify plants: leaf arrangements and shape, shapes of flowers and inflorescences, types of hairs on stems or leaves. In the afternoon, we went out into the garden to look at plants (mostly trees and herbaceous perennials) and to practice using our newly-acquired vocabulary to describe them. On the second day, we added more plants to our repertoire, including ferns, and also learned how to use various kinds of identification keys. On the third day, we focused on shore and salt marsh plants.
It’s been a long time since I tried to commit this much information to memory in such a short period of time, and I sometimes felt like my brain was about to explode. But the amount of learning was also exciting. I had always felt overwhelmed by trying to figure out the minute differences among the various types of goldenrod (Solidago) that grow on my property. By the end of the first day of this course, however, I could see the differences clearly and was able to identify four different species growing in and near my garden. (These are Solidago juncea, Solidago bicolor, Solidago canadensis, and Solidago rugosa. There may also be a fifth species, but I will need to get out my hand lens to look more carefully at the shape of the stem and whether/where it has hairs to be sure.) Learning to identify the goldenrods has given me confidence to tackle another confusing set of related plants in the Asteraceae family– all the different wild asters growing around my house.
Next month I’ll be able to build on my native plant knowledge as I go back to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens for two more courses, one on collecting and propagating seeds of Maine native plants and one on invasive plants in Maine.