Journal archives for November 2022

November 04, 2022

Tips on Photographing and Identifying Asteraceae, Symphyotrichum in Texas

The reputation of identifying Asteraceae is evident with the use of the acronym DYC. Properly done though, one may get enough information from photos to determine a species ID.

The draft treatment of East Texas Asteraceae from Flora of East Texas is one of the most up to date treatment on Texas Asteraceae so far, and available online at no cost. I gratefully acknowledge George Yatskievych for bringing this to my attention.

There is also FNCT, also available online at the BRIT website, which has illustrations for many species that may come in handy. If one is lucky enough to have one on hand (and skilled enough to interpret it), Correll and Johnston's Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas may also be a useful resource.

I would highly recommend using a good botanical glossary with these - lacking such a resource one may utilize the GoBotany pictorial glossary and any other online resources that may be of use. Multiple glossary sources may need to be consulted. It may be useful to rewrite the information in a way that is useful to you.

Regarding photography: it is front of the flowers that everyone takes pictures of... yet very often it is the phyllaries behind those ray and disc flowers that are most important. As such, a clear photo of the side of the flower is of great value. This can be difficult for thinner, smaller plants. One may need to use manual focus, a macro lens, or both. Flower array can be useful: isolate a branch for a clear photo, and maybe one showing the overall form.

The size of the flowers can make things easier or harder. Smaller phyllaries are way harder to take photos of.

Leaves are important. Note different sizes/forms, sessile or petiolate, margins, texture. Abaxial and abaxial sides (top and bottom), if you wish to be sure. Show where the leaves are attached to the stem to show the petiole (or lack thereof).

Seed heads are useful, if you can capture them in detail. Brush aside a few seedheads to reveal the achenes.

While one may not be able to prepare for all the Asteraceae one may come across, reading and synthesizing information on the taxa of interest before going out to document them will give you a clear idea of what to photograph. Learn it as you go along.

Posted on November 04, 2022 01:57 AM by arnanthescout arnanthescout | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 15, 2022

The Forester

Adapted from an unfinished journal, during my expedition to Philmont in 2019
When the seed was planted. I will forever be grateful to that forester I met at Philmont.

Eventually, the area greened over, and we arrived at Head of Dean. The staff came out to greet us, and after having us set our pack line by the staff cabin went ahead with the porch talk.

Here at Head of Dean there was only one main activity: the COPE challenge. Specifically it’s a team-building course where you have to work together to complete a set of challenges. This wasn’t the first time I had heard of COPE. I remembered that some of the summer camps in Texas offered a COPE course as well. However, I never knew what they did in depth—I just thought it was some high-intensity obstacle course or something like that.

And then, there was the forester. We were in luck, for, as one of the blackboards on the porch said, Head of Dean had their own forester that could educate crews about forestry in Philmont. I also had little idea what forestry was. Weren’t they those people who did conservation in the forest—managing sustainable logging and starting controlled burns to clear out brush?

Honestly, neither of these I was at first particularly excited for. Nonetheless, it’s Philmont, so these were things I probably weren’t going to do often. So you know, why not?

We set up camp on a slanted campground situated on a hill, which meant that we were going to have to sleep with some problems. Gravity would cause you to lean towards the area that was slanted further down, which makes things a bit uncomfortable when sleeping in the backcountry. Usually I pitched my tent with our feet facing the bottom of the hill, because that would keep me or my tentmate from leaning over the other. But that also meant that I would keep sliding down towards my feet, so I still had problems.

(Philmont flat, as they call it)

The forester was at our campsite when we were setting up so that he could talk to us while we ate lunch. Since this was the lunch that we traded out during Dean Skyline, we had to cook it on the stove, which took more time that just opening meal bags, but we had plenty of time to spare. The cooked meal that was supposed to be on day two was a hearty pot of beef stroganoff, which was filled into everyone’s bowls or cups. As we sat around the fire ring and ate our lunch, the forester began to talk. He started by showing us five or so different photos of the same patch of forest. I think the first photo was dated around the late 1800s, showing a group of ponderosa pine trees on the bare needle-covered ground. The next few photos showed how the patch of forest evolved. One of the photos showed much of the pines removed from logging. However, as the time passed within the photos, new brush began to grow from the ground, slowly making the forest denser and denser. By the time we reached near present day, it was nearly impossible to see the ground because of all the brush covering the ground.

There was one main reason for this buildup of brush: fire suppression.

When settlers began moving into the area, fire became a serious danger to them, destroying their settlements and killing people. Before, it was hard to suppress fires, because it took a long time for firemen to reach the fire, and extinguish it. Firemen would have to create a fire line, which was a line that was cleared of brush and flammable material to stop the fire from spreading further. but as technology improved, there were newer, more effective ways to douse fire—better gear, roads for faster transportation, dropping water on top of them with planes. Fires were quickly suppressed before they gained a large hold on the forest.

However, this created another problem. Fire normally helps clear out the lower brush in a forest, which helps add nutrients back into the soil and keep things “organized.” If you can’t throw your brushy trash away, just burn it to the ground, right? Normally the pine trees would be expected to burn too, but pine trees actually self-prune themselves by cutting off sap flow to their lower branches and leaving those to die; basically like cutting off your arm by strangling it with a tourniquet. Pine trees do this so that they keep their more flammable branches off the ground and away from brushfires. And because of their thick bark and sap, the pine trunks don’t catch as easily as the surrounding brush. Nature really nailed their adaptations with pine trees. The forester explained that as fires became less commonplace, new plants and brush began to crowd out the forest, growing unchecked by fire.

The forester pointed to a chubby, light needled, Christmas-tree-like conifer nearby. This was a white fir tree. Normally it grew at higher elevations, but due to fire suppression spread down to here. And unlike the pine trees around it, its branches grews straight from the ground up. Of course up in colder climates and higher elevations fire was less of a thing, so there was no need to kill off your lower branches. Which also meant if that thing caught on fire, guess which branches it was going to spread to?
Once the fire spread to the branches of the pine trees, it could easily spread from tree to tree. So the firs, along with other brush, made up a giant tinderbox of a forest. Think of a bit of oil dripping slowly into a bucket until it’s overflowing the brim, ready to be ignited with one spark. Which happened in the Ute Park Fire.


The consequences were devastating. Many acres of forest were burned down before the fire was contained, and Philmont was literally burned through the middle. With such a mass of wood and flammable material, the fire burned like a giant fireball through the forest. It was a disaster.
After the fire, the forester explained how to prevent such a fire again, they began to clear out the lower brush and some trees. He pointed out a few trees in our campground; they were marked with blue graffiti. These were going to be cut down to make the forest less crowded. Much of the wood would be sold and shipped out of Philmont to be manufactured or processed. This was also why Philmont encouraged crews to build fires to help get rid of the excess of flammable material.

When the forester was finished, I gave him a few questions on tree identification. The talk about pine trees and firs reminded me of some species that I learned about many years ago at a few national parks during a road trip. So I asked about the difference between a ponderosa pine and a lodgepole pine. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was along these lines.

“Well, the main difference is that the ponderosa pine groups its needles in groups of three.” He picked up a grouping of needles on the ground to show me. “Lodgepole pines have their needles in groups of two. Lodgpole pines also grow at higher elevations than ponderosas, so you won’t find any down here. Lodgepoles also have shorter needles, only one or two centimeters long.”

This fascinated me, and I continued to ask more things to fill up my conifer identification knowledge. I also learned the difference between white fir and douglas-fir. Mainly, white fir’s cones dissolved on the ground, so there were none at the bottom of a white fir tree, but on a douglas fir, the cones would be on the ground and have these little hairs or “mousetails” sticking in them.

A Doug Fir. Not from the trip. I was still plant-blind then.

(I later learned that Douglas-fir is not a true fir. I don't remember whether he told me this)

But the thing that intrigued me the most was probably the answer he gave when I asked the difference between a spruce and fir tree.

“The best way to figure out whether a tree is a fir or a spruce is to *shake hands with it*. If you shake the hands of a fir tree, you’re going to get blood pricks all over your hand, because spruce needles are very sharp. But those of a fir tree are soft and more flexible, so they won’t hurt your hands.”

You heard that right: you can shake hands with conifer trees to determine what type of tree they are. I quickly put it to the test; I put my hand on the branches of the white fir he pointed to earlier and gave it a nice shake. And surprisingly, it was extraordinarily soft! It was almost like touching cooked spaghetti. At this point, I went absolute tree-maniac and decided I would shake the hands of any nearby trees just to see if they were fir or spruce trees.

Before the forester left, he also gave one last very important piece of information. When someone asked him what kinds of trees he’s seen in Philmont, he briefly mentioned seeing a blue spruce tree.
Hold on, a blue spruce?

According to the forester, blue spruce trees were literally blue. How blue? “It’s not like blue-green, it’s just blue,” he said. “You’ll know it when you find one.”

And so started my obsession to find a blue spruce tree in Philmont. My mind was caught on the thought of finding a beautiful, blue spruce tree in a forest of green pines. Unfortunately, they weren’t the most common tree around, so I would have to watch carefully in my surroundings.

I wrote down an entire key based off of everything I learned from the forester. I didn’t have a pen or pencil, because my only one fell through the floorboards at Indian Writings (poor pen!). So I asked Mr. Shelton for a pen so I could remember what I learned.

When we had finished, I ran around camp for a while shaking hands with every tree I could find and identifying them by their species. Which wasn’t unusual for me. When I was young, I was so obsessed with butterflies that I learned how to identify almost every prominent butterfly in the Central Texas area. Still now I can point out basically every species except for those in the skipper and hairstreak family (which seem small and boring). Only this time, I wasn’t just identifying trees, I was shaking hands with them too. What a change.

This is where the account ended. I later remember being on the trail, reaching out to shake hands with a pine, when I tripped over something and fell flat on the ground. Yes, I was very obsessed with this. After that incident, I was a bit more careful to watch my step.

Posted on November 15, 2022 03:20 AM by arnanthescout arnanthescout | 1 comment | Leave a comment

November 24, 2022

The Notanist's Guide to Understanding Floras and Dichotomous Keys

To be continually revised
Notanist: A portmandeau of "not" and "botanist." It means exactly what it sounds like it means.

To describe a plant with words is like describing a work of art with words.

Describing and referring to a artwork with words: by themselves, the words are meaningless gibberish. Only by looking at the artwork does one start to understand what the words mean. Yet words can also describe things that are not obvious at first sight, deeper things that one would not have noticed before, and garner a greater appreciation for the piece at hand.

Describing and referring to a plant with words: again, the words are difficult to interpret by themselves. Ideally one would have the actual plant in front of you, but that is not always practical, so images serve as a substitute. Although, in a similar way that you cannot truly portray a vase or sculpture in images, you can never really portray a plant in images. It's always best to experience it for yourself. With proper documentation, you can get close, though.

Ok. So imagine a gallery of Monet's impressionist water lily paintings. See them? Alright. Imagine describing each and every one of those paintings in words. And then a step further: imagine telling someone how to tell those paintings apart using just words. And then putting that all in a book.

That, in essence, is what a flora book is. What you are trying to do is to look at a painting, look back through the book, and determine through all that writing which painting you are looking at. Indeed, it's a difficult task. However, with the points that I outline below, I hope that it becomes even just a little more manageable for you.

Tip 1: Don't overwhelm yourself. Start small.

I would not recommend starting out with Flora of North America. There is often such a large amount of species that you will quickly be overwhelmed. Even US state-level might be too much, depending on how big or ecologically diverse aforementioned US state is.

Work first from a smaller local flora book; I use Flora of North Central Texas. Once you feel comfortable, work up to something larger. Exceptions would be any groups or genera with relatively few species. It's easier to start working from several local species than a dozen or so nationwide.

Tip 2: Have a botanical glossary on you. With illustrations/images. And maybe a few other sources to check vocabulary.

There is no way a layperson would be able to read a flora book. Botanical terms practically consist of a completely different language!

As confusing as it may seem, there is a purpose to this language, which is to make keys, descriptions, and other botanical works considerably more concise. Think of the terms as shortcuts: "pedicel" instead of "stalk holding flower to stem," rachis instead of "that stem-like part which runs through the center of the compound leaf." Concise words versus botanical charades. To the student of botany, though, they present a great obstacle in deciphering keys and descriptions.

Solution: have a good botanical glossary on you, preferably one with illustrations if you're just starting out. A picture is a thousand words, so they say. Botanical terminology is significantly easier if you have an image of the part which said term corresponds to. I use Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary by James G. Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris. In addition to the traditional alphabetical glossary, terms are also sorted by category (leaf shape, stem indumentum, inflorescence types) which I find rather convenient. In lieu of an actual book, the GoBotany website has an online pictorial glossary one can use.

It's useful to have multiple sources to refer to. Sometimes a term will have multiple definitions. Pubescent can refer to having short, soft hairs, or having any kind of hairs. As with finding out the meaning of any sort-of word, look at the surrounding words and sentence for context in order to determine the definition.

You may need multiple sources to get an understanding of the definition of a term. This could include a normal dictionary and Google. Images are always helpful if you can find good ones.

Tip 3: Working from a larger flora? Simplify the key; rule out unlikely candidates

This applies to field guides as well. Start by eliminating species that are not known to occur in your area. I use BONAP (Biota of North America Program) maps, which organizes county-level maps by genus, so it's easy to determine which species in a genus occur in your county. The USDA plants database also has maps with its species profiles as well (you can zoom in on the maps to show county). With the USDA site you could also go to genus and check subordinate taxa maps, although I prefer BONAP for that. Also, if your flora book has a page with distribution maps for species, prioritize those as they will probably be more accurate than the other two mentioned.

Once you know what species occur in your area, you can focus on only those species in the key, which makes the keying process less overwhelming. For example, where I live only C. involucrata, C. leoicarpa, and C. pedata occur, so in the FNA key I can focus on those three rather than all 9 of them.

Tip 4: Read both statements in a couplet before choosing a lead

Sometimes the first option seems right and you feel you don't have to read the other one. It is however important to read both before making a decision, in the same way that it is recommended you look at all the answers on a multiple choice question before making a choice. Weigh them equally, then decide.

Tip 5: Don't understand? Take your time. Work couplet by couplet, word by word.

Sometimes you will grasp a couplet immediately. Sometimes... you won't. If you encounter the latter case, reread the couplet, with your botanical glossary. There's no need to rush through it... relax, take your time. Know what the words mean. Though understanding the meaning of the words is not always enough, which leads me to my next point...

Tip 6: Know which character corresponds to what on the plant

In other words, know the plant's morphology. Where is character X on your plant?

A short explanation of characters and character states:

  • Character: anything that can have more than one form/variation. Examples: Petal color, inflorescence type, leaf shape
  • Character states: things used to describe a character state. Examples: Red/white/light pink, panicle/cyme/raceme, ovate/deltoid/lanceolate

Leaves lanceolate
Character is leaf shape, character state is lanceolate

Sometimes, the petals are a lie; they're actually sepals! In all seriousness, though, it's difficult to understand whether the bracts on a plant are auriculate or lanceolate if you don't know which part of the plant is the bract.

A flora book with illustrations may be of great help here, especially if you're just beginning. Look at images of other plants in the genus. Reading the genus description might help too. It will get easier with experience.

Tip 7: A key often has multiple ways to distinguish taxa in a couplet. Use the ones that work best for you.

If a key is being annoying then it'll just reference one character (like seeds...), and if you don't have that on the plant, you're kind of stuck. Nicer keys will have multiple character-character state pairs, aka multiple ways to distinguish a pair of taxa. Use whichever way works best for you. Ideally, one would be able to use all characters listed in a couplet. However, if one part of a couplet confuses you, or is practically impossible to tell with images or even with the plant at hand (because of phenology), then look at the other ones. Focus on what you can understand.

Tip 8: Use the species descriptions to your advantage

A key cannot list everything about a plant and tell how it's different from each of the other species—that would take too long! The dichotomous key system reduces the information, making things more efficient. However, this extra information is still both useful and important. Thus, a good treatment will have a description for each taxon, which you can use to supplement the key.

At a couplet with a terminal taxon and a number lead: if you are uncertain, read through the description of the taxon and see if anything clearly disagrees with your specimen.

Narrowed down to 2-3 taxa: at this point, go ahead and read through the description of each taxon, noting differences, and evaluate your plant from there. The extra information often comes in handy. Think of the 2 descriptions as an extended key, where you can create your own couplet and comparative characteristics to look at.

Once you have reached a single answer, check and see if the species description matches up with your plant.

Tip 9: Referencing images: iNaturalist observations, herbarium specimens and other images can be accurate, but not always. Check them with literature, take them with a grain of salt.

Misidentifications happen, whether on iNat or in the herbarium, and that is something to be aware of. Take them with a grain of salt: check those "examples" with the literature. If working from iNaturalist observations, find an observation from a botanically-experienced user, someone who does understand floras and dichotomous keys. Those are significantly more likely to be accurate.

Herbarium specimens may or may not be more accurate with identifications. Also, they are often pressed/arranged such that you can see everything you need for identification e.g. top/bottom of leaves, calyx or phyllary details, pedicel or peduncle length relative to something else. Specimen sheets are often available to view online at various websites. Take advantage of those too.

Tip 8: Synthesize: rewrite the key in your own words and images

This is all about making that knowledge in the flora book your own. Write out the differences between commonly confused taxa, explain the meaning of the botanical terms. Draw out pictures on the margins showing what "hirsute" or "puberulent" mean. I can not emphasize this enough. Transform the key into something that you can better understand.

Tip 9: It comes with time. Practice. Be stubborn. Eventually, you will get it.

It took me approximately 2 years to "get" floras and dichotomous keys. Even then, I still struggle to use them. It won't happen overnight. As with all things it takes practice.

Practice using keys, even if you already know the species off the top of your head, or if it seems obvious or easy. Sometimes keys seem hard because you only ever resort to them for the difficult taxa. Practice with an easier group of plants that you are familiar with. I find that with difficult keys you won't know for sure if you are going the right way. But if you're doing a group of plants you can already identify without a key, you will know for sure when you messed up somewhere.

Be meticulous and stubborn. I will do anything in my power to get a plant to species, if possible.

When overly frustrated with something, shelve it and return to it later. After some breathing time and some more key-wrangling experience, you just might get it.

Posted on November 24, 2022 08:50 PM by arnanthescout arnanthescout | 0 comments | Leave a comment