When I first decided to learn about the plants in our area, I quickly discovered that I would need to know a little botany – at least some basic botanical terms – if I were going to ever take any approach other than trying to match a plant with a picture.
So I went browsing on amazon for books with “botany” in the title and immediately zeroed in on one called Botany in a Day. Irresistible title, eh? I ordered it, along with some more traditional botany texts and a book just on botanical terms, which I’ll talk about another time.
The subtitle immediately appealed to me as well: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. I’ve always found that if you can detect a pattern in nature, then it becomes easier to see again, and again. If you have to learn all the parts separately, then you might not recognize the same combination if you saw them later, elsewhere.
Then I started browsing through the book.
Whenever have you read in a botany book descriptions like these?:
The nicest thing about rose hips is that they stay on the bushes for most of the winter. In a timed study I picked three quarts in one hour….
[and later on the same page] ….
I can pick approximately one quart of [wild raspberries] berries per hour. Thimble berries, however, are so sporadic that you are lucky to find ten ripe ones in fifty feet….
[and elsewhere] …
In my timed studies I have been able to pick a quart of gooseberries per hour by hand and three quarts per hour by beating the berries off with a stick onto a tarp.
This man clearly loves his plants (and his berries!).
Elpel loves plants so much that he teaches courses on identifying them, and surviving on them, and more. He’s in Montana, so if you want to learn from him in person, you’d need to go there. But he does have an online tutorial that covers some of the material in the book.
He also draws. All the illustrations in the book are either drawn by him or are taken, as he explains, from public domain, out-of-print books.
Seven Families to Start With
Elpel’s tutorial consists of giving you well-illustrated bullet points to remember for seven plant families commonly found the the United States. These families include more than 45,000 species world-wide, so the chances are pretty good that you’ll find members of at least some of these families wherever you live. Once you’re familiar with these seven families, you should have the confidence to learn about other families. Elpel includes more than 100 other families in this book to get you started.
Since I was not going to be able to travel to Montana to take Elpel’s course in person, I proceeded slowly in my own way. I made out 3 x 5 cards, one for each of the seven families, to carry around as I looked at plants. I soon found that four of the seven families were quite common here in Panama, just as they are in Montana. The other three families – mint, parsley, and mustard – were familiar to me from childhood memories of Missouri plants.
More Than 100 Other Families
Then it became important to get familiar with as many of the other families as possible. The best way to do this (for me) was to collect a flower and then to use the Flower Profile sheet (slightly obscured in the photograph below since it is copyrighted material) given on page 26 of this edition as a guide to describing the parts of the flower. Once done, I then go to his keys and most of the time I get right to the correct family for the plant.
It continues to amaze me that this book, written by a man in Montana and focused on families in the temperate climate, is so extremely useful to me here in the tropics. Just this morning, I keyed out a “weed” to the Madder, or Rubiaceae, Family. Even the genus - Galium – was discussed in his book.
The Big Picture
The plant identification story is not presented in isolation. Elpel gives the perspective of the entire plant kingdom (and where it fits into all living things) and its history. He includes aids to identifying non-flowering as well as flowering plants.
When I first got this book, I skimmed through the overviews, being really eager to start learning the names of the plants. Recently, though, I sat down and read this book cover-to-cover and found it fascinating. Elpel writes well and obviously loves the plant world. He uses his own experience in tasting and experimenting with plants to give you a really good sense of what the plants are like. Here’s one of many accounts of his discovering disagreeable aspects of some plants, in this case, peppers.
Pepper oils are not easily soluble in water, so traces can remain on your hands even after you wash them. I learned this after making jalapeno salsa. On the way to the airport later that evening, my eyes suddenly felt like they were on fire. The more I rubbed my eyes, the more it hurt! It took me a few minutes to make the connection. If you do get it in your eyes, or your mouth is on fire, just use a little olive oil or some other vegetable oil to wash it out. Don’t use water, as that will repel the oil and drive it in even more.
Within each family, Elpel describes several genera (plural for genus) of plants to give an idea of the variety of plants that can be found within the family. It is here that Elpel gives a lot of personal detail and also starts going into the medicinal properties of the plants.
Right at the beginning of the book, Elpel relates how he had always loved plants but from the time he grew up through when he was newly married, he learned each plant he studied in isolation. One plant at a time. Then he participated in a field trip with an herbalist who introduced him to the concept of plant families. It was an eye-opener and changed his entire outlook on plants.
Elpel relates his own experiences, of course, but also cites a wide variety of authors on medicinal properties. In addition, toward the end of the book, he presents an overview of some of the major compounds found in plants – compounds that are probably responsible for the healing, or toxic, properties of the plant. Elpel does not give recipes for remedies, but offers a perspective from which to consider medicinal properties.
I highly recommend Botany in a Day. It’s a wonderful and un-intimidating way to get started learning plants. After you know a little more about plants, it’s a great book to return to for learning about other families and for the sheer pleasure of reading. Botany in a Day is still one of the very first books I turn to whenever I find a new plant. And, by the way, it has become the most used of those books that I bought that first day on amazon – it, and the book on botanical terms.