Monday, 25 May 2015

Seeing Plants with New Eyes - learning the language of plants

Gillian Candler reviews the NMIT Plant Identification course

An informative guided walk at Otari/Wilton's Bush last year spurred me on to join the local Botanical Society. I’m a children’s author so sometimes take a childlike view of things, I get excited by Hen and Chicken’s Ferns
Hen and Chickens Fern
and Puriri moths in Putaputaweta trees, I love the statuesque Wheki-ponga that look like people wearing cloaks and I delight at discovering hanging orchids.  But listening to members of the Botanical Society I often feel like a stranger in a foreign land who can only say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in that language, a good conversation being out of the question.

In order to master the language a bit better, I decided to enrol in a Plant Identification course run by NMIT (Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology) for the Department of Conservation. I had already completed some of their Conservation Field Skills courses so was confident the course would be good. The 2-day Plant Identification course is free and is held at different venues all around the country. I opted to do the course in Ohakune/Raetihi and a friend travelled down from Auckland to join me. Of the fourteen participants 9 were from DoC and the rest like me were volunteers in conservation projects.

Our tables were strewn with leaves and cuttings, so even in the ‘classroom’ most activities were hands on and involved us in plenty of discussion. The clever course design catered for beginners as well as those with patchy or developing knowledge. Our text was the helpful and well illustrated “Introduction to Plant Life in New Zealand: Plant Conservation Training Module 1” from NZPCN (New Zealand Plant Conservation Network). 

We made several trips to the Raetihi reserve - an ideal learning venue because of the variety of plants. Among stunning tall rimu and kahikatea, coprosmas and wheki-ponga, weeds abounded. 
Course participants dwarfed by wheki-ponga
 One participant cried out in horror at all the weeds saying all she could think of was how much work there was to do here, “but I know’ she said “I need to use different eyes today - not my weed eyes”. After we’d finished our leaf treasure hunt my friend said she’d never realised there were so many different leaf shapes, ‘the scales have fallen from my eyes” she joked.
Leaf treasure hunt

I too, felt that I was seeing things with new eyes, describing a leaf in detail pushed me to look and look again, each time seeing something new, whether it was how the leaf was attached to the twig, the leaf underside texture or the shape of its tip. Some of the challenge lay in regional diversity. The kohuhu (Pittosporum tenuifolium) here looked different from what I’d seen in Wellington and a ‘mahoe-like’ tree which I felt sure wasn’t mahoe because the leaves didn’t look like mahoe in my garden, turned out be a narrow-leaved or mountain mahoe (Melicytus lanceolata). Both instances a good reminder to keep an open-mind when trying to identify plants - and keep describing the detail.
Melicytus lanceolata - lanceolata describes the shape of the leaves

This course provided me with the language help I’d been looking for (even if it means I might need to cart my textbook around with me for awhile!) and a framework for going about the business of plant identification. The tutor Beth Endres from NMIT had the skills to manage our diverse backgrounds and levels of knowledge, and keep the course flowing. The other participants were all keen, interested and interesting, as they all brought different knowledge and experiences to the table. They helped make this an exceptional experience. This is the best course I’ve done in recent years and I thoroughly recommend it to other amateurs and volunteers wanting to improve their plant knowledge.

Other useful links:

New Zealand Plant Conservation Network