Making positive plant identifications with no margin for error!

Discussion in 'Plants: Identification' started by photopro, May 4, 2008.

  1. photopro

    photopro Well-Known Member

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    I realize there are quite a few very experienced growers on the various UBC forums. I also realize that some are botanists and have written either journals or published texts on the genera they have studied. I am often quite awed by the knowledge that many of you exhibit and for me being a part of UBC is a learning adventure. I learn something new just about every day. But I am increasingly concerned at some of the "positive identifications" I see being made from a single photograph. Please allow me to elaborate.

    I trade email with 5 of the world's top tropical species botanists all the time. A few of them correspond with me almost daily. I have yet to receive a response from any of them that says "it is positively", "it is certainly" or any other statement that indicates they can tell for certain what the plant I am asking about from a single, or even a few, photographs. Especially if that photo is of a juvenile plant. They just won't do it! True experts know better due to the variably of many tropical plant species.

    But I see more and more people on UBC making "positive" identifications without asking for any additional information! At least, before making a positive ID, a qualified expert will ask to see both the top and bottom of a leaf, the full stem or petiole, the base of the plant, a flower or inflorescence and likely a great deal more. One of my personal mentors is a qualified expert named Julius Boos from West Palm Beach, Florida. Julius has published many scientific articles in botanically published texts. He is also the co author of more than one botanical species which carry his last name as a part of the published scientific name. I asked Julius some months ago why he wouldn't offer "positive" identifications of some of my photographs and he responded with this authoritative response,

    "Please allow me a moment to attempt to explain how a taxonomist may I.D. any specimen sent to him.

    In most cases, the expert will need to see the plant specimen, or better yet a series of specimens, (or in rare cases a series of good set of photos which must show an adult plant and inflorescence, and should show close-ups of the sexual parts at anthesis). The specimens/photos should be of a mature plant, and have several leaves in which the examiner can look closely at both sides of the leaf blade, and the petiole, rhizome, etc. The specimens must have good collecting data attached. In other words, we need to know exactly where the specimen was collected in the wild.

    The genus/species in which you are interested are almost impossible to I.D. to species without good collecting data. Unless you can supply collection data and a series of good photos, it may be impossible to ID your specimen even with an inflorescence. Genera occur widely, so without critical collection data it is impossible for even the expert on a genus to give anything more then a 'qualified guess based on just one photo.

    My advice to you is to obtain collection data from any collections, as without this, the plant you see or even get cuttings to do an ID with any accuracy. Take photos of the adult leaves, their petioles (their length, amount/length of the sheath, shape in cross section, etc. etc. etc.), their rhizomes, etc.. Cut a portion of the spathe away and photograph the details of the sexual parts, exterior and interior.

    Good Growing and Best Regards,

    Sincerely,

    Julius Boos
    WPB, FLORIDA"


    So my first question would be how could anyone give a positive identification from a juvenile plant leaf photo?? And my second would be, how many of us even ask where the plant came from in nature? And my last would be, how many people who ask for an ID even know where the plant originated in nature?

    If you read and understood what Julius was trying to explain, and I will admit I deleted a few lines which were written personally to me, you should quickly realize it is next to impossible for anyone who is not a trained botanist to make a positive identification by simply looking at a photo of a few leaves. But I see "positive" identifications almost daily on UBC! Although you may be well intentioned, and may truly "know your stuff", it would appear in the best interest of all who come along and read those "positive" identifications if we all qualify our responses. Especially if we are attempting to make those identifications only having read a few text books.

    This is not meant to discourage anyone from offering an opinion. It is simply a suggestion we all consider stating when we are offering an opinion rather than being "positive" when there is a lack of material to make that positive I.D. And if you are qualified to make such identifications, it would also be well for all who read it to be made aware of your scientific qualifications to make that I.D. But please, before you tell anyone a plant is "positively" and a species name, consider what you are saying. Especially if you are making that ID from a single photo with no backup information.

    Just a thought for all of us to consider.
     
    Last edited: May 4, 2008
  2. Michael F

    Michael F Paragon of Plants Forums Moderator 10 Years

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    Very fair comment in difficult groups like many aroid genera!

    There are times though when phrases like "it is positively", "it is certainly", etc., can reasonably be used - reductio ad absurdam, take for example a foliage shoot of Ginkgo biloba, there really is nothing at all that it can be mistaken for, even without reproductive organs. There are plenty of species which are very readily recognised at a glance when the observer has good experience of it and its relatives.
     
  3. hermine

    hermine Member

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    If the concept of "POSITIVELY" were to exist in this world, given my eidetic memory, I would need no plant labels. I remember all the details of my obtaining of a plant new new to me, including the box in which it came, postage stamps of distinction, where I was when I unpacked it, and so forth, like an idiot savant, without (I hope!) the idiot part.... but.....even with a well-written key, I am playing "by ear". And i am good at visual identification, I am an artist and trained in visual acuity.

    We have been very lucky to have been in communication for nearly 40 years with some of the BIG BOYS and GIRLS in botany, and seldom have any of them been beyond all doubt, positive. In the way you describe, which is, without seeing, feeling, processing the information, given off by a particular plant. Many have said, hmmmmmm I do not exactly know but I think.....

    On the average they were shockingly modest by comparison with hobbyists and collectors, now that I remember.
     
  4. Ron B

    Ron B Paragon of Plants 10 Years

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    Strictly situational, experts will balk at sticking their necks out when it can't be told with certainty what it is. That's why you eventually mentioned leaves of juvenile plants, such is that kind of situation. Especially where it is a large group that may even be still evolving or where some species are recently named from limited collections of specimens - maybe tropical aroids, for instance - it may even be impossible to be 100 percent about a plant with adult features present. Professional scientists also tend to have this thing where if they haven't done the research on the topic themselves they are loathe to comment. Doesn't mean there won't be many other instances when there isn't much room for doubt, the aforementioned ginkgo for instance. Some plants are very common in cultivation and pretty distinctive.
     
  5. photopro

    photopro Well-Known Member

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    Michael and Ron, I agree fully with both of you. And I know each of you has the expertise to identify many plants without question due to your backgrounds. And I certainly agree with Hermine because I have been reading some of her published work. My concern is some of the genera that are not as well studied yet I see positive identifications being offered. I see that done with palms frequently when the photo only shows a juvenile. I am not well versed in palms and many other genera but I do know one of the top experts in the field of palms and cycads personally. He cautions me all the time not to draw conclusions without seeing the adult specimen in person. I'm certain there are qualified experts on this forum that have the background to do so, but I am also concerned for those times when the information available is quite limited yet the ID's are reported to be "positive". And palms aren't the only genera that I have been reading such posts which concern me.

    Just food for thought.
     
  6. greenthumb7

    greenthumb7 Member

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    Some plants one can be somewhat "positive" about but with so many hybrids, some seemingly identical, I think a thorough evalution is neccessary.
     
  7. Ron B

    Ron B Paragon of Plants 10 Years

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    With palms there may be a tendency for juveniles of different species to resemble one another, as do roses species and Phylloctachys bamboos.
     
  8. lorax

    lorax Rising Contributor 10 Years

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    And young examples of Malus and Prunus....

    I'm all with you, PhotoPro. Unless I'm absoultely 100% certain what the plant is I'm id'ing, I generally don't declare it. I'm no expert - I'm just a geeky person with an interest in botany and an eidetic memory. (I sympathise with you, Hermine - I know exactly, within degree seconds, where my plants came from and what the surrounding vegetation was as well - I gathered most of them myself....)
     
  9. DGuertin

    DGuertin Active Member 10 Years

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    Part of it is that the bigboys have a *whole* lot more experience than any number of us put together. That being said, however, they also then have that much more knowledge and experience to be unsure of. One thing about beginners luck is relying on a whole lot less info in the first place.

    A comparable example from my own life. I've been wheeling and dealing in Japanese swords for 15 - 20 years now. I get easily confused now because I look at so many different things that most people would never know existed. How does the grain look in this one section? How does this interact with that? What about the curvature? The length, the depth, the placement? Does it favour one area or another? Does that fit with what else I think identifies or confirms a certain smith? A relative newbie will then walk up, will look at it point blank and say, 'Oh, Muromachi, o-kissaki. Nice.' Once I get back 'outside the box,' I finally see it...

    Ignorance is bliss and patience is a virtue, so life's probably pretty good if you're stupid and don't mind waiting around...
     
  10. photopro

    photopro Well-Known Member

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    I realize we don't often introduce new contributors to UBC but I thought some of you might want to know about Hermine. She is a highly noted authority on Sansevierias. I don't collect this genus and know zip about them but in my reading on various genera I've run across her name many times as a recognized author. Just thought any of you who have read her work would want to know she is here!

    If she offers a plant's name in her area of expertise, I'd be inclined to take it to the bank.
     
  11. hermine

    hermine Member

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    (blushes deep purple)... My MAIN contribution to taxonomy has been removing names. If I am truly interested in something, like pre-1967 Volkswagen vans, the details spring out at me. I must be wholly invested in the "thing" for this to happen. I have seen Bamboo botanists walk blithely past my Cycad collection and say, "They all look the same to me"....no interest. These are the same fellas who will look at a bamboo leaf, rub it against the upper lip to sense the texture, get out a jewelers loup to eyeball the fuzz on its sheaths, on the auricles of the sheaths...they want to sense the plant in the most minute detail, but they see all Cycads as looking the same. NO INTEREST.
    I have been responsible for removing a Bamboo name, merely by sitting at bamboo meetings and making snarky noises every time it was mentioned. I was disagreeable in public over the name so many times, a qualified bunch of taxonomists finally did something. This is probably my greatest contribution to plant taxonomy.
    The only time i am 100% certain of something is when a person asks me, "Have you seen this plant before?" and if I have not, and I say so, you may take THAT to the bank. But I am a pretty good GUESSER.
    We all want something new, something we have not seen before, but I try not to see differences which are not really there, which are only slight differences in individual plants....some folks see them as entirely new and different. A seedling population shows some variation, even as does a consistent litter of puppies. Doggy folk will know what I mean.
    Anyway the moment I think I know something, it is only a matter of time before I meet somebody who knows at least a great deal more. And that's GOOD!
     
  12. Silver surfer

    Silver surfer Generous Contributor 10 Years

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    Guilty as charged.
    I admit I kicked the ball off on the Malus/Prunus thread posted by nergui77. It was probably very stupid, as I am no expert in this field. Indeed I am only a keen amateur gardener,right on the bottom rung of the ladder of knowledge. If I live to be a 100 I will never have the knowledge of many of the experts who post on this site.
    Malus and Prunus are a nightmare to id. even standing in front of the tree- text book in hand. In this instance,perhaps I should have stayed quiet. The last thing I want, is to lower the standard on this amazing site. I will take on board your comments photopro and be more careful in the future. I'm embarrased to have made some basic mistakes on the forums but often prefix my comments with " looks like"or "possibly". The beauty of these forums is that somebody with greater knowledge can challenge an identification or comment.
     
  13. photopro

    photopro Well-Known Member

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    Thanks for the great response, but please.................don't anyone stop offering advice or an opinion.

    This is the absolute best site on the net with people who offer great identifications and sound growing advice. I just would like for all of us to be aware that unless we are botanically trained and know all the intricacies of any genus we just can't be able to say (in many cases) what the name of a species may be without any question. And that is especially true in the generas and family I love to research, Araceae.

    Almost all of us have learned what we know by reading, growing and observation. Many people on this forum are phenomenal at their accuracy. I just sometimes shudder when I read "absolutely guaranteed" opinions that don't admit it is just an opinion from an individual who just read a book. Expertise comes from observation and interaction, not just what you can find in a library.

    But if you are knowledgeable, please do offer your opinion and advice! That is what is so good about UBC! But hopefully, when someone else on the forum has better knowledge we will also politely consider what they offer as well. And if you don't believe UBC is the best just go read some of the posts on other forums!
     
  14. hermine

    hermine Member

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    I am now about to hand water a collection of variegated Raphis palms from Japan, each with a Japanese cultivar name. To MANY of my knowledgeable friends the variegates all look the same, AMAZING AS THIS MAY SEEM! But the eyeball for variegation is yet another specialized plant eyeball. As for Malus and Prunus, they are one of my magnificent areas of total ignorance, although I believe i may be able to tell an apple from a .....a..... a ....a....Cherry. Right? On a good day I can tell an apple from a rose hip.

    Speaking of Gingkos, which somebody was, I have some highly variegated ones which often make people who know Gingkos ask, what is THAT? And then I saw a Gingko from a seed selection with all kinds of crazy branching, not at ALL typical of this tree. and I thought...."looks like a Gingko....but...." And I understand somebody, possibly Monrovia, introduced a very golden one, maybe of a fastigate habit. Maybe it came originally from that place in New Zealand...Duncan and Davies, maybe.
    Guessing may eventually point you towards the truth.
     
  15. joclyn

    joclyn Rising Contributor

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    well, that's simply not possible with some genus/species.

    educated guesses, based on book-learning, field investigation and/or personal experience, are the much more usual thing - even from those who are experts on a particular item.

    succulents (including aloe, haworthia, echeveria, sempervivum) can be so varied due to cross-breeding that even the experts may be stumped at best and completely incorrect at worst. the same applies for aroids, cycads and cacti. and acers, too, from what i've seen here. and other types of plants, that i'm not aware of, as well, probably.

    yes, a picture is worth a thousand words. one picture just doesn't always tell the whole story when you're talking about plants, though.

    that is something we all need to keep in mind, regardless of whether we're just the avid home gardener with a particular fancy, the world-reknown botanist or someone who is in between those two ends of the spectrum.

    i've learned a great deal since joining this forum - from those who, like me, are the basic avid home gardener as well as those who are professional botanists. and let's not forget the contributions from those who fall in between!

    this is a great place full of info - the majority of it seems to be correct, as well. that is a great plus, in my mind!

    one of the things i see, that i really like, is that many of the people here have no problem at all saying 'hey, i was wrong about that. thanks for providing the correct info'. the discussions are wonderful and people follow up with things - even if it's months later and the thread has died off. that's what makes this forum different from the others (and i belong to quite a few). these are the things that make me keep coming back here!

    so, let's keep the discussions going - even if they get a bit heated on occassion - because the only way to truly learn is to be open to other ideas.

    oh, and hermine? you GO girl!! :)
     
  16. DGuertin

    DGuertin Active Member 10 Years

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    Hermine,

    Since you mentioned it... ;-) I have a 15 and a 7 gallon Rhapis Excelsa, both of which prominently feature a mottled variegation on the leaves of several trunks (culms, canes, whatever.. ;-) Haven't been able to find a proper name for it; any ideas?
     
  17. Debby

    Debby Active Member 10 Years

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    I've always regarded the responses to requests for plant IDs as educated guesses, except, of course, where I've come to the same conclusion. Ha. Easiest for me on perennials and other commonly cultivated garden plants. The forums are fun and helpful. And a touch competitive.
     
  18. DGuertin

    DGuertin Active Member 10 Years

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    Hermine,

    Posting a new thread regarding the R. Excelsa variegation in the Palm section and the odd Ginkgo over in Woody Plants. Please have a look if you have a chance.

    Thanks much,

    Darryl
     
  19. lorax

    lorax Rising Contributor 10 Years

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    Debby - just like gardening. I think that's the sign that we're doing it right, here.
     

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