chapter  6
30 Pages

Plant characters suitable for field guides

ByWilliam Hawthorne

Plant characters were introduced in Chapter 5 as the foundation of botanical identification. In this chapter we focus on field characters that tend to be most useful in tropical forest field guides. But due to limited space, the chapter can only be an aperitif: many more topics, specific examples and details are explained on our linked website (see Box 1.1). Just a few common sample cases are included, biased strongly towards woody plants that dominate rainforests; but the principles and tips for field guide writers that these illustrate are generally applicable (see Box 6.1)

Field characters are generally less well understood, with less standardized terminology, than the classical fertile or anatomical characters that form the backbone of most other botanical publications; but there is no shortage of relevant jargon. Out of the jungle of myriad structures and terms, you have to find a set that are understandable and observable by your prospective users, and that are, at the same time, useful from a diagnostic point of view. In some cases, you will have few decisions to make, especially when dealing with distinctive groups – grasses, palms, bamboos, mistletoes, orchids and so on – for which monographs highlight the useful and often rather unusual or specialized field characters you need to know. For instance, for cacti, you will probably refer to size and shape of the plant, spines and stem ridges, no matter what form your guide takes. In other cases, including most woody rainforest plants, you have more choice of characters to focus on.