the Introduction

Plant Identification Course
for beginners in serious botany

Brenda Harold

This course is for people who want to develop the skills necessary for botanical recording but who have not had any formal training in botany. They may already be able to identify a number of plant species, but they have learnt the names either from other people or by looking at the pictures in an illustrated field guide. They do not read the descriptions fully because of the incomprehensible terminology; they rely heavily on flowers rather than leaves and fruits; they do not know how to use a key; they use English, rather than Latin, names and the ‘big flora’, without pictures, might as well be in a foreign language. This course addresses all of these issues, showing the participant how to identify plants systematically and not just by simple recognition. This leads to the accuracy that is essential in recording, where false records are a serious problem.

Completing the course will not make you into a competent surveyor but it will set you on the road to improvement, enabling you to tackle unknown plants confidently on your own. You will also be able to take full advantage of field meetings and the more specialised courses that are available, especially from the Field Studies Council (FSC) and the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI).

The skill necessary to carry out a survey independently would be equivalent to level 4 on the BSBI Skills Pyramid ( – Training – Know your plants). This level could be achieved by a beginner in a few years with real dedication but, of course, you don’t have to have this level of expertise in order to make a valuable contribution to a survey team.

Scope and learning outcomes of the course:
Flowering plants (angiosperms) are covered, with the exception of grasses, sedges and rushes which warrant a separate course. The non-flowering vascular plants (ferns, conifers and their allies) are not covered although they are within the remit of the BSBI and are included in surveys. Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) are not vascular plants and are not covered by the BSBI although they are included in National Vegetation Classification (NVC) species lists. The learning outcomes of the course are to:

  1. improve observational skills
  2. become familiar with botanical terminology
  3. learn the key diagnostic features of our commonest plant families (i.e. to know what to look for)
  4. become confident in using a flora
  5. develop the critical faculty necessary for accurate identification.

Course structure and methods:
The course comprises a series of units, delivered online, with questions to be answered by finding and examining plant species. Mostly, the task is simply to find the plant, to state the date and location and to give brief habitat notes and the main diagnostic features. You will not have to look for rare plants; the species asked for are all quite common throughout Britain and Ireland. You should be able to find most of them during local surveys if you take part in them regularly and many of them grow around gardens and roadsides. See course sample.

Each student is assigned to an experienced botanist who acts as tutor, correcting their answers and giving advice and support. Marks are not given but the answers are returned with comments.

There are 15 units, sent out at fortnightly intervals from February to August:

  1. Classification and Names
  2. Terminology
  3. Keys
  4. The Cabbage Family – Brassicaceae
  5. The Buttercup Family – Ranunculaceae
  6. The Lily Family – Liliaceae
  7. The Campion Family – Caryophyllaceae
  8. The Carrot Family – Apiaceae
  9. The Pea Family – Fabaceae
  10. The Rose Family – Rosaceae
  11. The Deadnettle Family – Lamiaceae
  12. The Figwort Family – Scrophulariaceae
  13. Some Small Families and how to prepare voucher specimens
  14. The Daisy Family – Asteraceae
  15. The Orchid Family – Orchidaceae

The first three units provide a foundation of basic theory. Then the most important families are studied, not in taxonomic sequence but in the order of their peak flowering times. So we begin with the Brassicaceae, Ranunculaceae and Liliaceae as these have many spring-flowering members. The penultimate family is the Asteraceae as this is most prominent in mid-late summer. The Orchidaceae comes last, without any questions, as a fitting end to the course.

Question sheets should be returned to the tutor as soon as possible. The timing is so arranged that it should generally be possible to find all the necessary species within a few weeks of receiving the unit, but you should never expect to be able to find all of them straight away. A field notebook containing a ‘wanted’ list is essential.

It is possible to complete the course in one year and there is a time limit of two years. If you are a complete beginner or have little time for plant hunting two years will be necessary. The course is not accredited, but you will receive a certificate of completion. The BSBI has developed Field Identification Skills Certificates (FISCs) that anyone can take to assess their field skills but there is no other suitable accreditation system for botanical field skills currently available. The most important outcome will be confidence and recognition by other botanists.

What do you need?

  • The Wild Flower Key by Rose revised by Clare O’Reilly, Warne, 2006. We will use some of the keys in this book so it is essential to have a copy. The previous, unrevised, edition will not do because there have been numerous changes.
  • A x 10 handlens is essential. A suitable lens can be obtained from Summerfield Books (, listed under Magnifiers. Their x10, 18mm at £4 + p & p is very good.
  • The New Flora of the British Isles by Stace, preferably the 3rd edition, Cambridge, 2010. The 3rd edition contains many changes in classification and names compared to previous editions and also to Stace’s Field Flora. You don’t need to buy this immediately however, and there is no need to buy the new edition if you have a previous one.

The course was initially written for Wildlife Trust volunteers. It has been developed with the support of the BSBI for general use throughout Britain and Ireland. The financial administration is being undertaken by the FSC.

The Course Director and author, Brenda Harold, has a PhD in plant cytogenetics, is a Chartered Biologist and a retired university lecturer. She is a long standing BSBI Referee and a member of the BSBI Training and Education Committee. She has tutored numerous adult courses for the FSC, Workers Educational Association, Wildlife Trust, Open University and other organisations. She also volunteers as a Wildlife Site Surveyor for Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust and it was their need to train beginners that inspired this course.

Finally, plant-hunting is fun! Those who have already completed this course have said, without exception, that they enjoyed it.