Sunday, 2 September 2012

Keys at the Sea

The Botanic Garden is a living collection of plants and, like any museum collection, it is important to know exactly what we are looking at. Plants can be identified in a number of ways- often it is enough to see a plant once and be told what it is to establish familiarity for life. Often it is possible to match the living plant to a picture or photograph in a guide. An image search on the internet, however, may provide us with a variety of plants from widely different families, all sharing the same name. It is obvious that identification has to come from an authoritative source. Luckily for botanists and gardeners this source exists in the form of comprehensive floras of native and garden plants. It was to gain experience in using these guides that staff from the Garden team attended a recent course in identifying coastal plants run by the Field Studies Council.
Saltmarsh at Shingle Street, Suffolk

Which Salicornia is which? 
The course took place in Suffolk under the expert tuition of Ros Bennett. Staff from the Botanic Garden joined other students in an effort to identify various coastal plants, mainly using the key from Stace's New Flora of the British Isles. A key of this kind lets the user choose between two descriptions of a plant. The chosen description will lead to another pair of descriptions, and so on, until the plant has been identified to the level of family, genus or species. Often the key features in these descriptions require a hand lens to be visible. The curious naturalist discovers a hidden world of microscopic beauty. 

Many beautiful plants grow in the ever-changing landscape of the salt marshes and shingle. Obviously, many are adapted to the high levels of salt and the regularly inundated mud of estuaries. While these plants may be impossible to grow in Oxford some, such as Sea Lavender (Limonium) and Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) are thriving in the garden.
In any case, learning how to use a flora allows us to identify plants from any habitat and encourages to look at the wonderful variety of detail that makes every plant species unique.

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