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Learning About Maine’s Native Plants

August 24, 2016

CMBG native plants classFor 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.

CMBG goldenrodsIt’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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2016 7:53 pm

    The course sounds fascinating. I would like to take it if they offer it again. Please let me know if you see something next year. Your whole series of courses sounds very practical.

    • August 24, 2016 8:02 pm

      Carolyn, This course gets offered every year, usually in August. Because it is a required core course for the certificate in Native Plants program, it can fill up, so it is worth registering as soon as the courses become available (I think in May). I am having a wonderful time in these courses.

  2. Ellen Bear permalink
    August 25, 2016 6:14 am

    Sounds wonderful!

    • August 27, 2016 9:30 pm

      Ellen, I have been impressed by most of the classes I’ve taken at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens — well worth the price and the drive.

  3. August 25, 2016 1:40 pm

    I’m impressed, Jean! I’d have found the memory exercise intimidating too. I used to pride myself on my memory but now not so much, although I do make a habit of using botanical Latin when naming plants in lieu of their common names (even if it causes some of my friends to roll their eyes at me).

    • August 27, 2016 9:31 pm

      Kris, It’s fun to spend three intensive days with a bunch of plant nerds where the use of botanical names is just considered normal. 😉

  4. August 25, 2016 10:03 pm

    Sounds like an excellent course! I’d be interested in something like that here.

    • August 27, 2016 9:32 pm

      Jason, I’ve been learning so much from these courses and I feel very lucky to have the time and opportunity to take them.

  5. August 25, 2016 11:48 pm

    Sounds like a hard class, it is something I would really enjoy. I took 3 classes on plant identification and I loved them, especially the field work.

    • August 27, 2016 9:34 pm

      Charlie, Three classes on plant ID — wow! I have taught myself something about this over the years and learned a little about botanical names and plant keys in my trees course last year at the Senior College and in my Master Gardener course, but this was a much more intense and in-depth treatment of the subject.

  6. August 26, 2016 3:03 pm

    Asteraceae … we have SO many I sometimes quietly wimp out with … a nother yellow daisy.

    Daunting at first, but now you have the basic knowledge, it is easier to keep adding named plants to your repertoire!

    • August 27, 2016 9:38 pm

      Diana, I once saw an interview with former US first lady Lady Bird Johnson filmed at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas. At one point, the interviewer pointed to a flower and asked her what it was. She shrugged and said, “Oh, it’s one of those DYCs.” “DYCs?” he asked. “Yeah,” she replied, “Damn Yellow Composites — they all look alike!” It pleases me to get a handle on one small set of my DYCs. 🙂

  7. October 1, 2016 4:31 pm

    Hello Jean, I’m glad you’re enjoying the Botanical Gardens course, I hope the “cramming” doesn’t turn into “information overload” but it sounds like you’re learning lots and having a great experience in the process.

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