By: Katherine Culatta, Seasonal Botany/Ecology Field Assistant
One of the most exciting things that can happen to a botanist is to stumble across an unfamiliar plant and puzzle over its identity, working though guide books, dichotomous keys, and consultations with fellow plant enthusiasts. When I’m solving the identity of mystery plants, I feel like a real-life botanical Sherlock Holmes. It’s the same kind of rush you might get from solving a complex puzzle or reaching the end of a scavenger hunt, and it’s one of the reasons I first became interested in a career in botany. Of course, mystery plants become fewer and farther between the more time you spend in one place. It’s nice to walk along a trail and immediately recognize most of the plants you see, but the thrill of the chase is missing.
Luckily for me, this summer I got a chance to move over 700 miles, from mountains to coast, to reach Nantucket and ample opportunity to confront mystery plants as a botany and ecology field technician for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. In fact, when I first arrived I was overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar plants and a bit clueless about where to start! Fortunately, our resident plant expert Kelly Omand was there to introduce me to some of the more conspicuous plants familiar to anyone who has spent time observing the flora of Nantucket: Bayberry, Scrub Oak, Sweet Pepperbush, Little Bluestem, Blue-eyed Grass in the spring, Sickle-leaved Golden Aster in the summer, and Northern Blazing Star in the fall. Once I was familiar with the most common plants, I was ready to start learning the less frequently seen members of Nantucket’s plant community.
The most definite and reliable resource that botanists use for plant identification is the dichotomous key. Though dichotomous keys lack the ease and aesthetic appeal of a guide book with photographs or illustrations, they are superior for tough identifications because they offer detailed comparisons among similar species. A dichotomous key is composed of many sets of paired questions about an unknown plant’s appearance, growth form, habitat, and other characteristics. Each question answered narrows down the pool of potential plants that could fit the description of the unknown plant. If a plant is truly a mystery, the best place to start is the very beginning of key, but with experience the plant family can often be determined without a key. Recognizing family characteristics saves time in plant identification because it allows you to skip the portion of the dichotomous key designed to determine which family the unknown plant belongs to. In taxonomic terms, a plant genus is a group of plant species defined by shared characteristics, with the genus name being the first in the Latin binomial (for example, the ‘Homo’ of ‘Homo sapiens’). A plant family is the next larger classification that includes multiple genera and is based on characteristics shared by all the plants in the family. For example, members of the grass family (Poaceae) have leaves with parallel veins that are divided into a stem-hugging sheath and a flattened blade, hollow stems, and specialized flowers arranged in spikelets. Members of the daisy family (Asteraceae) have compound inflorescences made up of many smaller flowers, a specialized fruit type called a cypsela, and are usually non-woody. Learning to recognize family characteristics is a useful botanical shortcut to get one step closer to figuring out the genus and species.
If you’d like to try keying out a plant, a full dichotomous key to the plants of New England is available online through the New England Wildflower Society.
So, we’ve established that plant identification is a thrilling puzzle, but how does it fit into the larger goals of the Science and Stewardship department at NCF? First and foremost, it is essential for land managers to know what species are present on their land and where they occur. Plant identification is also crucial in assessing the effects of land management practices over time, or how natural forces such as deer activity might impact plant communities.
Part of my job this summer was to complete plant community sampling in the Middle Moors, Ram Pasture, Sanford Farm, and Squam Farm. This entailed identifying and recording the abundance of plant species present in small plots or along transects designed to be representative of the larger landscape. In the Middle Moors, community sampling focused around a population of Broom Crowberry (Corema conradii), a rare shrub most often found in open, disturbed coastal habitat. Sections of habitat had been burned or mowed to assess how disturbance could promote or sustain Crowberry growth. Community sampling at Ram Pasture and Squam Farm also took place in areas managed to promote open habitat- through fire at Ram Pasture, and sheep grazing at Squam Farm. At Sanford Farm, monitoring was completed both inside and outside the large fenced-in area designed to prevent deer from eating vegetation. Though deer clearly and visibly impact vegetation in areas where they feed, their exact impact on plant communities is uncertain. Monitoring species composition in areas open and closed to deer will give us a better idea of how the deer population influences plant communities on Nantucket.
The data we collected this summer are interesting as a snapshot of the plant communities currently present in each location, but they become truly useful once they are put into the context of time. This is achieved by compiling data sets from monitoring efforts over multiple years to assess how the plant community has (or hasn’t) changed over time and in response to management practices. This information informs future decisions about land management on NCF properties.
I feel lucky to have found a place this summer where I could contribute to interesting long-term research. I had a great time exercising my botany skills, learning a lot about coastal habitats, and working alongside some amazing biologists. Farewell to Nantucket, and I hope we meet again!
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us! www.nantucketconservation.org