Right at the beginning of the year, I received a notice from Ruth Bone, who has worked on the French Guiana Coastal Savanna, telling me about the Key to Neotropical Plant Families from Kew Gardens. This post is a thank-you to Ruth. Had she not pointed me toward the key, I could have been a long time finding it. [Incidentally, Ruth is now contributing to the monocot area of the key. It was the researchers at Kew Gardens and the Missouri Botanical Gardens who were responsible for putting together The Plant List, discussed here recently.]
You can find the key if you go from the Kew Home page to Scientific Research & Data, and then to In Depth, and then to Tropical America, and then to Projects and programes in Latin America. Finally, on that page, not quite midway down, you’ll find a brief paragraph on the “Interactive key to the flowering plants of the Neotropics.” You will probably enjoy exploring all those links, but here’s the link to the key itself.
If you’ve ever used a key to identify anything – tree, ocean creature, orchid, whatever – you may have found yourself bogged down in terminology. I have. Both as a student many years ago and as an amateur now. But this key has lots of help for us beginners.
The main screen is laid out in four sections.
I’ll go through each one to show you how I used it with a particular plant in hand. I knew the “answer,” in that I knew to what family this plant belonged. The main thing I wanted to test about this key was whether it would be easier to use than the book I usually use as a starting place, a field guide by Alwyn Gentry.
The upper left, a scrollable list, is a list of the features you’ll go through in an attempt to identify your plant. You can check off up to 75 features of your plant.
One of the most helpful elements of this key are the illustrated examples. When you click on the small icon – if it’s present – to the left of a feature, an excellent illustration of that feature comes up in a small window. This element is especially helpful if you’re not sure of the botanical terminology used, or even if you’re not sure of your geography. When I clicked on the icon next to Central America in the Geographical Region feature, up popped this map:
You think something like that is not necessary? Maybe it shouldn’t be, but I know intelligent people who think that Mexico is part of Central America, so Kew would set them straight.
Here’s another example, this time of a botanical description of the arrangement of leaves on a stem: alternate and distichous:
Right away this feature encouraged me. I always have another book in hand when I’m going through Gentry, a book called Plant Identification Terminology, An Illustrated Glossary, by Harris and Harris. When Gentry uses a term new to me, or one I’ve forgotten the meaning of, I look it up in Harris and Harris. Clicking on an icon to give an illustration of the term looks like a good shortcut.
Below the complete list of features is the list of features that you have chosen as applying to your plant. This is a handy review. If you decide you might have been wrong about one of the features, you can uncheck it here without having to go through the complete list to find it again. I took this screen shot when I had finished working up my plant. You see that I checked only 40 of the 75 available features. Some of the ones I left out were features I didn’t know – I didn’t have any seeds in hand, for instance, so I couldn’t make any choices about them – and others I skipped because of uncertainty about the terminology, despite the helpful illustrations.
At the upper right is the list of families that have plants with all the features you have chosen. You can see here that even though I chose only 40 of 75 possible features, the plants in only one family met my criteria. Solanaceae.
Yes! The plant I was using is indeed a member of the Solanaceae (tomato, potato, etc.) family. If I click on the word Solanaceae, I’ll go to a page that gives a description of that family, with examples of members running down the right column:
One of those images was a plant belonging to the same genus as the plant I had in hand, a Solanum species:
At the bottom right is the list of families that were eliminated from choice as I went through the features.
So, those 40 features eliminated 317 families in the Kew database from consideration.
All in all, the process was pretty efficient. I didn’t time myself, and I didn’t compare working up the same plant with Gentry. Most likely, I would have gone through the Gentry process a bit more quickly because I’m already so familiar with it. But I expect that as I use this key, I’ll become more adept at it, and it could become my first key of choice.
In a nutshell
This key to neotropical plants from Kew Gardens strikes me as a tremendous tool for figuring out to what family a plant belongs. Learning the family is just the first step in plant identification, but it’s an essential one. When there are as many species of plants as there are in the tropics, and when the identification resources are so limited, it is absolutely essential to learn the family name if you are to have a hope of going any further.