“What is that plant” is just the first of many questions to ask when identifying or classifying a plant. 

A rose is a rose is a rose…. But what family is it in? And how do you know for sure? Student interns at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum learned a lot in a short space of time June 15 when they took part in a plant ID class at Matthaei. Conducted by Arb and Gardens’ curator David Michener and native plant specialist Mike Kost, the class was designed to introduce summer interns to the diverse and complex world of plants and plant taxonomy: the description, identification, classification, and naming conventions used in botany and plant-related studies.

“Why do we even bother to ID plants?” asks David Michener as the class began. He explains that it’s a way to communicate what plants are to a large number of people—a universal descriptive language. That means no common names if you want everyone on the same page. “And once you have a name,” David says, “you can classify it according to genera, family, and so on.”

Beginning indoors in the lab the class started with grasses and sedges. “Sedges have edges, and rushes are round,” goes the old memory device. Beyond that, the world of grasses opens up to reveal a vastly complex system of identification. “There are specialists devoted just to sedges or grasses,” Mike Kost notes.

Plant keys are critical for identifying specimens.
Sample plant key from the University of Misssouri

After an hour in the lab students are ready to go out into the field to observe in real life some of the plant structures and processes botanists use to identify plants. Those might include the parallel leaf venation that is usually a strong indicator for iris-family plants, or the blossoms of Aster-family plants, each of which is composed of many individual flowers.

“It makes sense that we’d offer a class like this,” says Mike Kost. We’re all about plants.” Though Matthaei-Nichols interns come from all across campus and bring different perspectives to their work here as they help out in every department, a basic understanding of plants and plant ID processes is important enough that Michener and Kost will likely offer this class every summer.

Interns in the medicinal garden at matthaei examine a large
stand plants in the pea family.

A rose blossom

Students get to work on grasses and sedges. 

Curator David Michener (left) explains characteristics
of tradescantia, a plant in the spiderwort,
or Iridaceae, family

Mike Kost (right) explaining grasses to interns.

A flower on a tulip tree in the medicinal garden at Matthaei.