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The garden is located at the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley, CA


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January 2015


Bilabiate (two-lipped) flowers of heartleaf penstemon (Keckiella cordifolia)


To many, the term taxonomy is directly linked to identification by naming, a specialty that’s all about memorizing and regurgitating names—in other words, a potentially boring pursuit. But to excel in this field—itself a blend of science and art—you can delve into a dynamic study that enlightens relationships, engenders a hidden world of wonderful and varied form, and brings the practitioner into a kinship with the natural world. What started for many as a practical platform for learning to recognize floral diversity comes to be much more—an intimate study of the whys and hows of what makes each species unique.

Far from simply finding a name, you can learn what’s in a name, that is, how a plant came to be given its name, and beyond that, how to recognize that plant in order to attach the right name to it. While most systems of classifying and naming are based principally on the details of the reproductive parts—cones, seeds, flowers, spores—plants spend long periods of time in a vegetative state, with only stems and leaves. How do you deal with identification then? How can you find the right name?

This is where keen observation is key. Traits to focus on include the overall shape and form of the plant—the habit—whether tree, shrub, herb, ground cover, vine, or other. Knowing this basic piece of information eliminates many possibilities. Next, turn to branch pattern, details of bark, buds, and their attributes—even on deciduous plants—details like leaf and vascular bundle scars. Or turn to fragrance; even though our vocabulary is surprisingly imprecise, odor and kind of odor go hand in hand with certain specific families, genera, or species.

Stellate leaf hairs on desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Leaves provide a wealth of information. Take a moment next time you see a leaf to determine leaf arrangement (opposite, alternate, whorled, basal), leaf shape, leaf color, leaf texture (soft, pliable, leathery, stiff, rough), leaf form (simple, compound, deeply dissected, lobed), leaf vein pattern, leaf margin (wavy, even, toothed, scalloped), leaf coverings (hairs of many kinds, scales, waxes), and more. The hand lens or a good dissecting microscope can reveal hidden details of hairs, itself a world of diversity not obvious to the naked eye.


Returning to the most opportune window for identifying by reproductive parts, there’s more to see than just noting numbers of flower parts, flower color (which in many plants varies considerably), flower shape and size, whether parts are joined or separate, or ovary position (inferior, half-inferior, superior). For example, what is the pollen color? Usually yellow, this fine powder can be white, orange, pink, purple, or blue. Even more is revealed in examining pollen under a microscope—a whole universe of shape, texture, and openings are revealed. Have you peered inside the ovary to examine the position and number of seeds, the presence or absence of compartments or chambers, the sculpting of the seeds or appendages they may have (some seeds, for example, have prominent fleshy arils, others oil bodies or elaiosomes). What do the stigmas that receive pollen look like, are they covered with warts, sticky exudates, or prongs and feathers, and are they long or short?

The hardest new discipline in plant identification is truly hidden to the naked eye, revealing traits that suggest relationships previously missed. How many chromosomes does each cell have? How do the embryos develop? What is the pattern of germination when seeds grow? What special chemical substances are present, such as the composition of nectar, protective exudates, unusual alkaloids, characteristic proteins, or the form of stored food inside the seeds?


Even more esoteric is the study of DNA, which in plants is found in chloroplasts (the green bodies containing chlorophyll), mitochondria, and nuclei. How do certain key genes change over time compared to similar genes in related plants? This study helps elucidate how closely groups are related by comparing the length of time the groups have been separated, measured by the amount of change in the target genes.

Leaf vein pattern


These last aspects are unavailable to the field worker and dedicated naturalist, instead requiring sophisticated lab equipment and skilled technique. Yet, these are among the reasons that massive reclassifications have taken place, frustrating those trying to learn names and relationships. In some cases, obvious traits can be linked to these hidden attributes, but it requires more time and study to master the new patterns.

Still, all in all, taxonomy is not only a dynamic field of study, but a practical way of observing relationships, building a framework to which new species can be added, and viewing plants in depth.

And despite what many in the field would tell you, taxonomy is far from a hard science: Interpretation of plant traits is still somewhat subjective and not set in stone, although someday it may be more explicit as we continue to learn and add new information. For the moment, call taxonomy a blend of objective scientific analysis and observation combined with a creative interpretation to determine what seems the most cogent and logical.

Hips of California wild rose (Rosa californica)


Aggregate fruits of California blackberry (Rubus ursinus)


Now more about identification: What is the most efficacious method of identifying a new, unknown plant? Perusing books illustrated with color drawings and photos leaves much to be desired and is at best an exercise in elimination without actual verification. So let’s take a look at how the most valuable tool—the key—functions. In its basic form, a key is no more than a series of logical choices, which when correctly chosen lead to the name of that new plant. The majority of keys are what we call dichotomous, two similar choices per step. So, for example, if one choice talks about flower color, the alternate choice also refers to flower color. Altogether, keys seem as though they’re logical and should therefore be easy to use.

Unfortunately, nothing is farther from the truth: Keys can be challenging, difficult, and often problematical. Here are some of their pitfalls.

  • For starters, most keys are based on reproductive parts, making them impractical during most of the year.
  • Naturally occurring plants vary, but keys seldom take variation into account. For example, most strawberry flowers have five petals, but some have six, completely changing the direction of the key and leading to a false identification.
  • Despite attempts to take into account known exceptions, keys often fail to incorporate all exceptions.
  • Large keys are often inherently faulty because it’s very difficult to be thoroughly consistent in constructing a long key.
  • Poorly made keys often compare overlapping traits (for example, leaves one to two inches long versus leaves two to four inches long), making a reasonable choice impossible. In this case, you have to follow both choices to see if farther along there are inconsistencies!
  • Some keys require the presence of flowers and fruits, which are often not available at the same time of year. This is especially true for genera in the Brassicaceae (mustard family) and Apiaceae (parsley family).
  • In some groups, keys require digging up the plant to see the root system or underground bulb. Examples include Allium (wild onions) and Delphinium (larkspurs).

Finally, keys require learning a whole new vocabulary, comparable to the words of a foreign language. Special terms describe nearly every attribute, including leaf characters, flower arrangements (inflorescences), branch patterns, flower shapes and parts, details of seeds and ovaries, and much more.

The best way to learn to key is to use one key consistently (different authors of keys may use terms slightly differently or have certain inconsistencies in their keys), practice as much as possible with as many different plants as possible, and practice some more.

Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) shedding cotton-haired seeds

A particularly instructive exercise is to choose a plant whose name you already know and work backwards in the key to see how the author interprets the steps and choices.

As you can see, taxonomy is an endeavor through which you can learn a lot and, in the process, find a new way of appreciating and seeing the plants around you.

Learn more about taxonomy with Dr. Glenn Keator:
A Taxonomy Master Class in
California Native Plants
January 25 – November 22, 2015
  • Learn to recognize, identify, and understand California’s vast and diverse native flora
  • Get in-depth experience with native plants, building a framework for identifying our flora
  • Become a keen observer of flowers, shrubs, and trees
  • Embrace the similarities and differences of important plant families
  • Learn how to recognize plants through the seasons

This master class will prepare you for field work and provide you with a deep understanding of California’s amazing native plants. During the program, you will learn the key features of 65 major native families (which encompass over 90 percent of the plants encountered in the wild), sample major genera and species in those families, and practice the art and science of identification through the keying process.
For more information and to register, visit

Jepson Herbarium Workshops for 2015

The Jepson Herbarium has announced its public workshops for 2015. Programs planned for this year include several workshops on plant identification as well as others on lycophytes, plants of vernal pools, and California naturalist training, along with many other interesting choices. You can find the complete schedule and other information by clicking here.


Docent Training at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden
If you enjoy spending time in a beautiful setting, learning about native plants, and sharing your knowledge with others, you can help the Regional Parks Botanic Garden share our state’s rich native plant heritage by becoming a garden docent. As a volunteer educator, you’ll help young students and other garden visitors understand and appreciate California plant life in this exceptional all-native garden in the Berkeley hills. No prior experience or knowledge is necessary, but the class is limited to those who will lead tours in the garden, either on weekdays for school children and other groups or on weekends for the general public.

Docent training covers a broad array of topics, including basic botany and plant identification, plant geography, pollination, ethnobotany, and teaching techniques, and prepares docents to lead tours of the garden. Each session features a lecture followed by a walk in the garden. The primary instructor is Dr. Glenn Keator, a respected botanist, educator, and author of a number of books on native plants.

Being a docent has many benefits, including continuing education classes and field trips as well as the intangible rewards of sharing a child’s joy of discovery or enriching a visitor’s experience of the garden

Docent training is limited to 15 participants; register soon to be sure of a space
WHEN: Tuesdays, January 6 - June 16, 2015
9 am–12:30 pm
WHERE: Regional Parks Botanic Garden
Wildcat Canyon Road at S. Park Drive
Tilden Regional Park, in the Berkeley hills
COST: $200 for the training course, text, and a one-year membership in the Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden
Contact the garden staff at / 510-544-3169

Upcoming Classes
A click here will take you to a full description of the class as well as the class registration form
Wednesdays, Jan 21-May 13, 10 am–3 pm

Native Plant Habitats: A New Class Series Class Full
Saturday, March 28, 10 am–4 pm

Botanizing California: Oat Hill Mine Road Class Full
Saturday, April 11, 10 am–3 pm Botanizing California: Hite Cove in the Foothills near Yosemite

Class Full
Saturday, April 25, 9:30 am–3:30 pm Native Botanicals: Color Studies in the Garden

Space Available
Sunday, April 26, 9:30 am–3:30 pm Native Botanicals: Watercolors in the Garden

Space Available
Friday-Saturday, May 1–2 Botanizing California: Table Mountain and Feather Falls from Oroville in the Northern Sierra Foothills

Space Available
Saturday, May 9, 10 am–12 pm Gardens All Abuzz: Partnering with Pollinators

Space Available
Saturday, June 6, 10 am–4 pm On-the-Trail Nature Journaling
Space Available
Illustration/Photo Credits

©Jason Hollinger


Bilabiate (two-lipped) flowers of heartleaf penstemon (Keckiella cordifolia)

©Stan Shebs

Stellate leaf hairs on desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

©Glenn Keator

Leaf vein pattern, Hips of California wild rose (Rosa californica), Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) shedding cotton-haired seeds

©Jerry Kirkhart
Aggregate fruits of California blackberry (Rubus ursinus)
©Carla Koop
Pollination tour for elementary school students