The Course

It is a distance learning course with a difference – course units are delivered online but you practise real plant identification throughout the summer with the support of a tutor

  • The course consists of 15 units delivered at fortnightly intervals
  • It starts in February and finishes in August, tracking the flowering season
  • Each unit concludes with a short question sheet, requiring you to find and examine wild plants
  • You have your own tutor, who will correct your answers and give advice
  • There are no grades or numerical marks
  • The course can be completed in one year but you may continue into a second year if you wish

Could you be a Tutor?    See The Tutor’s role


Course structure and organisation

This course is not designed for absolute beginners but for anyone who can identify some plants but needs help to improve. It teaches participants how to identify plants systematically and not just by simple recognition. This leads to the confidence and accuracy that is essential in recording.
The learning outcomes are to:

    • improve observational skills
    • become familiar with botanical terminology
    • learn the key diagnostic features of our commonest plant families (i.e. to know what to look for)
    • become confident in using floras and botanical keys
    • develop the critical faculty necessary for accurate identification.

There are 15 units, available to download 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 as a fitting end to the course. Each unit (except the last) is followed by a question sheet and answers are returned on-line. See Sample units.

The questions involve finding and examining named wild plant species. Mostly, the task is to find the plant, to state the date and location and to give brief habitat notes and the main diagnostic features. There is also some work on keys. You do not have to look for rare plants; the species asked for are all quite common throughout Britain and Ireland and many of them grow around gardens and roadsides.

You have a tutor who is an experienced botanist familiar with your own area, who corrects your answers and gives advice and support. Marks are not given but the answers are returned with comments. If all the questions have been answered your tutor will correct any errors and grade the unit as ‘complete’. If the questions have not all been answered (maybe one of the required species has not yet been found) the unit will be graded ‘incomplete’. You can re-submit the answer sheet later, possibly not until the following year.

The course is not accredited, but students who complete all units are awarded a Certificate of Completion. It is possible to complete in one year and there is a time limit of two years. If you have not completed the course in your first year your fee automatically covers a second year – you do not have to apply for this. Your username and all personal and course data are deleted from the website after completion or at the end of the second year whether you have completed or not.

Plant-hunting is fun! Those who have completed this course have said, without exception, that they enjoyed it. The most important outcomes will be confidence and recognition by other botanists.

The organisation:

The Field Studies Council (FSC) is responsible for the financial management of the course.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) supports the course but is not involved in the running of it.

Our tutors are all dedicated to the training of new botanists and are happy to share their enthusiasm and expertise with their individual students.

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.


Identiplant does not follow a regular sequence like conventional courses.  Units are released on alternate Fridays but the answer sheets do not have to be returned in numerical sequence. This is mainly because you are unlikely to be able to find all the required species immediately after the release of a unit.  Short interruptions due to holidays, workload etc. are not a problem.  However, it is essential to continue fairly steadily through the season or flowering times will be missed.  This course cannot be completed in short ‘crash’ sessions.  Students need to be continually on the lookout for the named species which then have to be examined in detail and described using proper terminology.  It is this steady practice that enables the learning outcomes to be met.

This is essentially a practical course and the course team is not responsible for the weather!  There are big climatic variations between different parts of the British Isles and Ireland so students in the north may be surrounded by snow whilst spring is well under way in the Channel Isles.  This is frustrating but will not affect performance on the course because the tutors are all familiar with local conditions and the lists of required species include choices to allow for regional variations in the flora.

How much study time is required?

About 2 hours per week would be sufficient to study the units and write up the answers – more for the important unit on terminology. There are no submission deadlines on the individual question sheets so you have flexibility in working although no answer sheets can be accepted after the end of September each year.

The most time-consuming part of the course is finding the plants.  You generally have 3 or 4 named species to find for each unit.  They are all quite common and there is some choice – but plants never seem to turn up where you expect them.  This can be difficult for beginners who have previously always been shown wild flowers but your tutor will give advice if necessary.  Becoming observant is an essential part of the learning experience and the required species are found in all sorts of places, from car parks and pavement cracks to woods and grassland.  Anyone who has not found all the plants and completed the course in their first year is entitled to a second year and you should plan for this if your time is restricted or you are unused to plant-hunting independently.  It becomes much easier in year 2.

Note that answer sheets can only be submitted after the release date of the relevant unit, even in the second year, and the website closes between October and February.

If you enjoy plant hunting and can find time for it then this is the course for you.  Some former students have said that it becomes obsessive!

Fees and equipment

The standard course fee is  £300.

If you are a volunteer with a group or organisation that carries out botanical recording, and you intend to continue to record with them on an unpaid basis, you qualify for the concessionary volunteer rate of £100Before your application as a volunteer can be considered we must receive a reference from an established member of your group or organisation, stating that you have been with them for at least one year and that you are a bona fide volunteer.

BUT if you volunteer for Plantlife please do not ask them for a reference – we will do that for you.  You qualify if you have had an NPMS square for at least one year.

You need a copy of The Wild Flower Key, Francis Rose, revised and updated by Clare O’Reilly, 2006. This field guide is essential because we follow keys in it.

A x10 hand-lens is also essential – an ordinary magnifying glass is not powerful enough. You can obtain a suitable lens on-line from Summerfield Books (type ‘hand lens’ into the search box), x10 magnification, 18mm diameter, costing £4 + p & p.  It is not necessary to purchase a more expensive lens at this stage and don’t buy one with a magnification greater than x10; these have an extremely small field of view and narrow depth of focus.

The course is delivered on-line so basic IT skills are essential. A good, reliable internet connection is necessary and a device on which you are able to interact with the course.  A tablet or laptop/desktop computer would be preferable as these have larger screens that enable you to read the course material, appreciate the pictures and complete the assignments.

The Tutor’s role

The course comprises 15 units which are released on-line fortnightly between February and August. There is a question sheet after all but the last unit. (See Sample units) The questions are intended for learning, not assessment, so tutors are expected to show the students how to improve their answers, and not simply to mark them as correct or incorrect. They do not give numerical marks or grades.

As well as marking answer sheets the tutor needs to support and encourage the student, especially those who find that plant identification is much more difficult than they had expected. Email is used for general messages and questions from the student, so the tutor must read and respond to emails promptly. The telephone is not used nor do tutors and students normally meet face to face, although this is possible.
Answer sheets are not submitted at regular fortnightly intervals but irregularly throughout the season. Provided that the students are informed, absences of a week or two are not a problem, but the role is not suitable for anyone who will be away, without access to the internet, or too busy, for long periods during the summer.

There are no formal qualifications for becoming a tutor but the following are necessary:

  1. Experience in botanical recording locally (able to handle the BSBI recording card comfortably OR able to conduct a full NVC survey OR have a FISC level 4 or above). Students are allocated on a regional basis so local botanical knowledge is essential but tutors do not have to be national experts.
  2. Reliable internet connection and email system and reasonable computer literacy (familiarity with Word documents and downloading material).
  3. A desire to help keen beginners to become competent field botanists. Sympathy towards the difficulties of beginners and an encouraging and supportive attitude.

Tutors generally enjoy their role and students are very appreciative of their efforts. If you would like to participate please email giving details of your botanical experience and your location. You may be asked to provide a botanical reference.