The Original Question about Value of Naming

Fri Jul 19 13:35:17 CDT 1996

Comments-on: Fri, 19 Jul 1996 13:34:08 -0400 (EDT)
Comments-of: "Ford, Donna" <DIFORD at WVNVM.WVNET.EDU>
    Thought I would contribute my reply to Mike for the entire list as well!

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     "Ford, Donna" <DIFORD at WVNVM.WVNET.EDU>

Thanks for clarifying the point of your question!  I can appreciate how that is
an important and controversial issue.  I have two points to make in response:
1. I teach a field botany class probably similar to that of Lammers.  As far as
I am concerned, the most important of the objectives for the class, is to learn
to observe things carefully, and then to use knowledge of the plant's features
to identify it by "keying out."  That is what we do the entire three hours we
are out in the field, and on every exam the students have 3-4 new plants (never
seen before by the class) to individually identify using the keys in the flora.
The goal (endpoint) is the name of the plant, but the skill is observation.
The application is to know when I look at a specimen is it the same as some-
thing I have seen already (i.e., previously identified) or is it different
(needing to be identified).  I try to teach the students that by careful
observation and comparison, they can take "short-cuts" that allow them to begin
keying at the family or genus level, rather than at couplet A, page 1.  However
2. Each species should only have to be keyed out once.  After that, it is an
aquaintance, and effort should be made to remember the name.  Like making new
friends, it takes practice and time--first it is just a familiar face, then
with repetition you can put the name to it.  (I make a point of learning and
calling my students by their names ASAP, just as they have to study the plants
I already know).  As we study each plant in the field, observe its distinctive
features, and thus figure out the name, I also mention other "interesting"
aspects of the species: I always try to explain the etyology of the latin
binomial (and whatever common names we choose to recognize), as well as talk
about important ecological or economic tidbits.  The bulk of the exam, however
is "regurgitating" memorized binomials (with half credit for the text common
name).  The only other questions (beside the "unknowns" mentioned above) are
related to major terms, mostly pertaining to morphology.  The students are
happy not to have to learn the "trivia" about each species.  Many times they
recall these items, even after the specific epithet is forgotten, anyway.  I
tell them that the value to learning the name  is that it is the point of
access to all other information about the plant.  With a scientific name and
the correct reference one can look up the habitat, medicinal use, etc, but it
all hinges on having a name (memorized or by keying, which the students all
agree is a difficult exercise.  So, with apologies for being so long-winded,
I am in favor of teaching/telling the names (and I like latin genera), but in
an observational context.  For example, on your nature walks, have the students
"discover" the explosive capsules of "Jewelweed," then explain to them that the
name is Impatiens, or "touch-me-not."  If both taxa grow in the area, you can
have them observe the two flower colors and learn about the separate species
(and don't forget to tell them that this is a handy plant to know as a reputed
cure for poison ivy, one of the first plants that every student should learn
to recognize and avoid).  Talk about seed dispersal and conservation (I
encourage my students to study the plants as non-destructively as possible),
and above all, happy botanizing!

Donna I. Ford-Werntz     West Virginia Univ.
Herbarium Curator (WVA)  Box 6057
Asst. Prof. Biol.        Morgantown, WV 26506
425 Brooks Hall          (304)293-5201 X2549
fax: (304)293-6363  email: diford at
Web site at
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