Sunday, January 16, 2011

Learning by Doing

Next month marks eleven years that I’ve been involved with the native plant society in Georgia.  My first activity was a plant rescue in Cobb County.  I knew nothing of native plants then except they were in need of saving.  I was fortunate to attend my first rescue under the instruction of Jeane Reeves.  Jeane was the founder of the rescue program, and her enthusiasm knew no bounds.  She was happy to teach new people about native plants and how to save them.

I still have my notes from that first rescue: I rescued Magnolia macrophylla (Big Leaf magnolia), Hexastylis arifolia (Heartleaf ginger), Tipularia discolor (Cranefly orchid), Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) and several other things.  I remember coming back home and parking my car in the driveway so that I could use the warmer space in the garage to pot things up, carefully making labels for these plants so that I could remember their names.

Here is a picture of a Hepatica nobilis var. obtuse (Roundlobe hepatica) that I rescued that first year; if it wasn't for the snow, I could probably find one of these in bloom already.  

Of course I don’t need labels for these plants now – I can recognize them all easily at 20 paces and rattle off the botanical name as fast as I can say the common names. Now it’s my turn to lead folks on rescues and help them learn more about native plants and how to save them. Jeane is gone now, but she left behind a veritable army of rescue leaders (“facilitators”) in an organized program that saves thousands of plants each year in Georgia.

Eleven years of doing this and yet I still learn new things all the time.  Everyone has their own learning style – learning by doing is the best way for me.  If that’s a style that works for you, I’d like to share some of the things that have helped me go from zero to here in the last few years.

Repeat exposure: I have gone on dozens of plant rescues since February 2000, many of them within 50 miles of each other. Therefore, I have been seeing and rescuing some of the same plants over and over. Doing so has allowed me to see the plants in all different stages of growth, from early spring emergence to the withered foliage and bare twigs of dormancy.  Here is a picture of my 157th rescued Christmas fern (just kidding, I don’t keep count).

Polystichum acrostichoides

Using my own plants to learn: Identifying a plant in the winter forces you to look at different characteristics like the bark, the twigs, and the leaf buds.  I use the plants that I already know in my own yard for study in the winter so that I can recognize them elsewhere.  Here is a picture of a Viburnum acerifolium that I photographed in my yard after someone asked how they could distinguish a bloom bud from a leaf bud. 

Viburnum bloom bud
Viburnum leaf bud

This is a picture of an azalea (Rhododendron sp.) bud that I wanted to capture the look of so that I could associate it with the bloom appearance – in hopes of recognizing a particular species by the appearance of the winter buds.

Azalea bud
Same azalea, in flower

Looking up things I don’t know: When I’m introduced to a new plant, I often take that as an opportunity to learn more about it.  I have a bookshelf of plant reference books that I use, and I also use the internet (use the scientific name if possible when searching).  I might also ask more knowledgeable folks if I cannot find enough information.  If I don’t know the name of the plant, then I try to use plant keys to identify it. 

Workshops, field trips: Two organizations in my area offer workshops and field trips – the Georgia Botanical Society and the Georgia Native Plant Society.  Often these trips are available for very little cost if any at all.  I have taken both the Aster and the Oak workshops offered by GBS as well as Twig Identification and Propagation workshops with GNPS.  Field trips offer trips to interesting places and are guided by experienced botanists, naturalists and trip leaders.  Here is a picture from a GNPS field trip in June 2010.
June 2010 Southern Highlands Reserve field trip

Taking pictures of plants: I find that I notice more details when I am taking pictures of plants.  Until I took pictures of it, I did not notice the way the leaves of Aster patens (Symphyotrichum patens) were sessile, clasping, and auriculate.  I’ll have an easier time distinguishing it from other asters now in the field.

Symphyotrichum patens
Clematis sp.

And I never appreciated the crispy edges and dark purple inside of this native Clematis until I spent time photographing it.

Growing them:  In spring I find seedlings in my yard, and I let them grow until I can identify them. When I watch plants grow up, I learn to recognize them when they are young. In the summer, I see the variations in the leaves and the blooms.  In the fall, I learn how to harvest seed and what kind of fall color I might expect. In the winter, I learn what the leaf buds look like.  Each season brings new surprises and variations.  Look at the beautiful striping on these azalea flower buds!

Rhododendron sp.

That's how I've spent the last eleven years.  I look forward to learning more each year, making new friends and meeting new plants along the way.


  1. Wonderful article! Your photos are so helpful, too!

  2. You can find out more info about Tipularia discolor on my blog at:

    Tipularia discolor at the Florida Native Orchids Blog

    The Florida Native Orchid Guy