Friday, 29 October 2010

Elementary Botany

Week 2

Issued with my electronic door-opening dongle, I whisked through last week’s maze of doors in a blaze of confident navigation.  Arriving at LR2, I squeezed into the far seat of the back row and absorbed the growing sense of expectation from the gathered class. Catherine had arranged a lovely bank of flowers, seed heads, dried cones and specimens all along the front table – a glorious riot of autumn colours – soon to become items of scientific enquiry.

Greg Kinicer, RBGE Botanist, took us through our paces in elementary botany and nomenclature.  Linnaeus’ classifications laid bare, we learnt the difference between kingdoms, divisions, classes, subclasses, orders, family, genus, and species. Armed with slides and brandishing thorny spikes of artichoke we followed the division into families:
  • Cruciferae (Brassicaceae) – cabbage family
  • Composite ((Asteraceae) – daisy family
  • Graminaceae (Poaceae) – grass family
  • Guttiferae (Hypericaceae) – St John’s Wort family
  • Labiatae – (Lamiaceae) – mint family
  • Leguminosae (Fabaceae) – pea family
  • Palme (Arecaceae) – palm family
  • Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) - carrot family

Each family was further described by species within their genus, categorized by leaf structure and catalogued with proper use of italics. Cultivars were allowed a brief entry with mutants following.  

We then abandoned our Powerpoint presentation and whiteboard for the broad avenues and grassy slopes of the gardens. Gathering under the pointed bows of the great Monkey Puzzle tree we learned hat most plants were hermaphrodites who adapted their sexual habits to reproductive needs. Cones and flowers produced together, leaf structures that weren’t really leaves at all but parts of a flower, whether acuminated, truncated or obtuse and extraordinary measures taken to spread, grow and dominate.

The afternoon was much less dramatic. 

We were treated to a beautiful exposition on creating Herbaria specimens (homework to come) by Kate Eden in the lofty halls of the worldwide collections. (Darwin’s own handiwork is held within these hallowed halls.)  Employing tweezers, thread and needle, surgical tape and strong sacks of sand with great agility, Kate took us through the process of recreating nature’s artistry in 2D displays for posterity. 

Around the corner, three RBGE staff were migrating the contents of the renown Herbaria into digital format. Cross-referenced with images and data from around the globe, this will be the beginning of a new age in our understanding and documentation of plant life on earth.

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