One of the most important things that a child can learn is the ability to visually observe and describe objects and situations. This allows them to engage actively in learning and in independent research. The ability to describe an object means that you can discern minor differences between multiple objects that have similar characteristics.
Enter plant identification. Plants are identified using all of our senses. (Although “taste” is not always a wise sense to use.) They look a certain way, they feel a certain way, they smell a certain way, they taste a certain way, and some of them even create certain types of sounds. Plants can be herbaceous or woody. They may spread by seed, by runners, or by suckers that spring up from damaged roots. They may be “hardy” and able to live under deep snow or they might die off as soon as temperatures drop into a light frost. They may be found growing in certain location or they may be observed in many different environments. They may have three leaves or four leaves. They may be broad-leaf or grass-like. They may be edible or poisonous. They may be a look-alike or often referred to by a local nickname. They may also look drastically different depending on their growing conditions, their cultivar (for cultivated plants), their variety, etc.
One of the things that I learned from my father was how to identify certain plants, specifically berries. I could identify yew berries, huckleberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries as well as many poisonous berries such as pokeberries. Later in life I found the ability to describe things to be tremendously valuable and applicable to many things.
Part of the “Curriculae Random” that I have for my children is plant identification. We learn about this through collecting edible weeds, growing different plants from cuttings, from seed, and using other propagation methods, and by talking about the different plants that we see and find and grow at different times of the year.
This year we are growing a variety of tomatoes. We are growing Burgess Trip-L Crop tomatoes which have a leaf style referred to as “potato leaf” since the leaves do not look like tomato leaves. These grow very long vines and grow large pink tomatoes. We are growing white cherry tomatoes, red cherry tomatoes, patio cherry tomatoes, yellow pear tomatoes, chocolate brown cherry tomatoes and “heirloom rainbow” tomatoes which might be green with zebra stripes, brown, pink, or red. We are growing different varieties of broccoli and cabbage and brussel sprouts, and we have started seeds outside in the ground, inside with a grow light and inside in the window. We are growing strawberries, mock strawberries and alpine creeping raspberries. We will be picking blackberries, black raspberries, red raspberries and purple raspberries in our backyard as well as taking a trip to Pennsylvania to pick a berry known as the “wineberry” or “wine raspberry”.
Identifying plants requires counting, comparison of shapes, comparison of colors, observation of the environment, observation over time and across seasons, the ability to notice details that make something different from what you are expecting, and so many other skills.
*Note: Curriculae is not a real word. I chose it intentionally It arises from a misunderstanding of a word. Many of us feel that a “curriculum” has to be something official. Some of life’s best learning opportunities are anything but laid out, and sometimes we follow our curiosity and the opportunities that arise within everyday life.