The Botanist’s Eye: Identifying the Plants around You
Catherine Kleier is the Associate Dean of Faculty in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at California Polytechnic State University. Prior to that, she was a Professor of Biology at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, where she taught courses on general biology, botany, and ecology. She holds a PhD in Organismic Biology, Ecology, and Evolution from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Professor Kleier was awarded a National Geographic Society/Waitt Grant in 2011 to travel to northern Chile to explore populations of a rare, giant alpine cushion plant, Azorella compacta. In 2013, she was a Visiting Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Botany at the University of Otago in New Zealand, where she investigated facilitation in the alpine cushion plant genus Raoulia. In 2014, she was elected Faculty Lecturer of the Year at Regis University, and in 2015, she was named the Colorado Professor of the Year, sponsored by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Professor Kleier is also the presenter of the Great Course Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany.
01: Why Learn the Names of Plants?
Knowing how to name plants can help you develop a better relationship with the outdoors. In this introductory lesson, get a brief overview of how life is divided and classified, walk through an example of taxonomy using a ponderosa pine tree, and consider helpful tools every good casual botanist may need.
02: Before There Were Flowers
Non-flowering plants have been on Earth longer than plants with flowers. Here, start with mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. Then turn to ferns and fern allies and discover tried-and-true methods for identifying them. Lastly, consider several phyla of gymnosperms and their species, including the Gingko tree.
03: Plants Are Named like People
Dive into the many classification systems botanists used (and still use) to name plants. Among these are the binomial system popularized by Carl Linnaeus; the phenetic classification system, which aimed at revealing relationships based on shared characteristics; and the three ways botanists determine the ancestral traits of plants.
04: Organizing the Huge Diversity of Plants
Professor Kleier helps you to make sense of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG), which botanists now use to classify flowering plants. You’ll learn how APG came about, what it does, and why it’s so important to field botanists. Then you’ll explore the six guiding principles for naming a plant species.
05: The Language of Botany
From roots and stems to leaf hairs and fruits, learn to determine the parts of plants so you can make your own identifications in the field. What are the two main types of root systems? What are the most common leaf arrangements? What are the three different symmetry types for flowers?
06: What the Terms Monocot, Dicot, and Eudicot Tell You
Embark on your in-depth exploration of the major plant families. First, learn to recognize the difference between monocots and eudicots. Then, explore the most ancient plant family in North America and four basal angiosperms. Among the plants you’ll encounter are: water lilies, magnolia trees, pawpaws, and avocado trees.
07: Parts of Three: The Monocots
In this lesson, investigate monocot plants, which grow from bulbs and tend to bloom early in the spring. You’ll cover the Easter lilies of the Liliaceae family, the purple heart of the Commelinaceae family, the corpse flower of the Araceae family, and the Arecaceae (or Palmae) family with its instantly recognizable palm trees.
08: Monocots: Orchids, Asparagus, and Irises
Continue your look at monocots with a lesson on four more plant families: the Orchidaceae (the second largest family of flowering plants); the Asparagaceae (which does include asparagus as well as agave plants); the Amaryllidaceae (which includes daffodils and paper whites); and the iris family, or Iridaceae.
09: Grassy Monocots: Grasses and Relatives
The grasses, or Poaceae, are fairly easy to recognize—but are rather difficult to break down into individual species. There are four families you’ll learn about in this lesson: three which look superficially like grasses (rushes, sedges, and cattails), and the Bromeliaceae, or the pineapple family.
10: Early Eudicots: Buttercups and Poppies
Now, enter the largest group of flowering plants: the eudicots, which all form a good group because they all have a similar pollen structure. Professor Kleier discusses three families (Ranunculaceae, Berberidaceae, and Papaveraceae) and also shares the floral diagrams and formulas botanists use to remember plant family characteristics.
11: Eudicots: Crassula, Euphorbs, and Willows
You’ve already met some succulents in the Asperagaceae family, which includes agaves. Here, meet two other families that include succulents, the Crassulaceae and the Euphorbiaceae, and some other plant families that decidedly don’t include succulents but are related: Saxifragaceae, Violaceae, and Salicaceae.
12: Eudicots: Peas and Beans
The Fabaceae family is so diverse and so prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere that it deserves its own lesson. Home to important crops such as soybeans, green beans, peas, and alfalfa, this fabulous family is easily recognized by the “wings, banner, and keel” arrangement of the flowers.
13: Rose Eudicots: Roses, Mulberries, and Elms
The economically important rose family produces many tree fruits, including cherries, plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, and almonds. Here, explore the rose family, the Rosaceae and some closely related families: the Moraceae, the mulberry or fig family; the Ulmaceae, or elm family; and the Cannabaceae, the hemp, hops, and hackberry family.
14: Eudicots: Squashes, Oaks, and Birches
In this lesson, look at the Cucurbitaceae, the cucumber and gourd family, and the Fagaceae, the oak family, both of which are defined by their fruit types. Also consider three families closely related to oaks: the walnut family (Juglandaceae), the birch family (Betulaceae), and the “she-oaks” common to tropical beaches (Casuarinaceae).
15: Eudicots: Maples, Cashews, and Chocolate
Meet five plant families that are mixed in terms of woody and herbaceous members. Begin with the Sapindaceae, which in addition to maples, includes lychee. Continue with the cashew family, the Anacardiaceae; the Malvaceae, the mallow family, which includes hibiscus, cotton, and chocolate; and the Geraniaceae, or the geranium family.
16: Brassica Eudicots: The Mustards
Why learn to recognize the Brassicaceae? Because, as you’ll learn, it's the sixth largest family in North America, including around 650 species. And one of them, Brassica oleracea, has been cultivated into kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, red and white cabbage, Chinese broccoli, and other delicious vegetables.
17: Pink Eudicots: Pinks, Cacti, and Relatives
In this lesson, learn the easiest way to recognize a carnation in the wild (hint: look at the leaves); gain a greater appreciation for the humble tumbleweed (also known as the Russian thistle); and explore the cactus family, with their iconic modified leaves (botanically called spines) and smaller bristles (called glochids).
18: Heath and Dogwood Eudicots
Which plant genus produces berries that are almost all edible? What relationship exists between roses and rhododendrons (Greek for “rose tree”)? How can you determine whether or not a tree or shrub belongs to the dogwood family? Discover answers to these and other questions about heath and dogwood eudicots.
19: Gentian Eudicots from Milkweed to Coffee
First, take a closer look at the milkweeds and dogbanes of the Apocynaceae family, known for their opposite leaves and milk sap. Second, learn about the Rubiaceae family, which gives us gardenias, quinine, and coffee. Lastly, consider the beautiful blue gentians in the Gentianaceae family—some of the only true-blue plants around.
20: Tomato-Type Eudicots
Most of the plants you’ll meet in this lesson are herbaceous and have petals joined at the base. They are the Solanaceae, or nightshade family (which includes tomatoes and peppers); the Convolvulaceae family, whose members are usually vines; and the Boraginaceae, whose generally hairy members include the forget-me-nots.
21: Minty Eudicots with Liplike Flowers
In this lesson that focuses on liplike flowers, Professor Kleier introduces you to one of the easiest plant families to identify—the Lamiaceae, or mints—and one of the hardest: the Plantaginaceae, or plantain family. Plus, explore an intriguing plant family, the Orobanchaceae, whose plants are partly (if not all) parasitic.
22: Sunflower Eudicots: More than You Think
What makes a weed a weed? Turns out, it’s not a botanical term at all—it’s just the name for plants that grow where they’re not wanted. In this lesson, you’ll meet two families: the bell-flower family, or the Campanulaceae; and the sunflower family, or Asteraceae, which includes everyone’s favorite weed, dandelion.
23: Parsley Eudicots: Plants with Umbels
Examine a family of plants (known for their compound umbel inflorescences and hollow stems) that include a great many herbs and spices—coriander, cumin, cilantro, dill anise, and fennel—as well as some very toxic plants including poison hemlock. Also, consider examples from the ginseng family and the honeysuckle family.
24: Now You See Plants
To conclude the course, Professor Kleier gives you a brief review of 20 plant families: 10 of the most speciose and 10 she considers just as important. Then, she offers her insights on the future of botany and how new genetic evidence could change how we identify certain plants.