Let's use the term "expert" for the person to whom you are
addressing the question. The honorific may or may not be justified,
but I need to call him, her or them something.
If your question concerns
plants outside in the garden, the expert will need to know approximately
where you live: remember that an e-mail address gives no clue to this,
so please say "USDA Zone 5" or "just north of Alice
Springs," or whatever will set the scene effectively. If I am
the expert in question, I happen to know where the most famous Alice
Springs is, but if you live in Athens, please tell me if it is the
one in Georgia or the one in Ohio or the one that commands the entrance
to the Aegaean Sea (my apologies to all the other nice cities in the
world called Athens that I fail to mention).
If the question concerns
a houseplant, your hometown is not as important, although we certainly
have an easier time with our houseplants in South Florida, and more
flexibility in giving them a vacation outdoors, than do you guys in
the frozen north. So, throw the information in - you aren't paying
by the word for your e-mails, after all.
Now, if you are after the
name of a plant which you bought (why couldn't the nursery tell you?
Are you going back to these people?), you have to be able to describe
it. Here is where the work begins!
We will leave out the part
underground ( unless you want to let on to the expert that we are
dealing with something that grows from a bulb and dies down during
the year [that is a good clue!]). Plants may grow with a rosette of
leaves without a stem until the flowers develop (think of dandelions
or amaryllis), or may have a stem or trunk on which branches may
form and leaves develop (think of everything else).
Leaves are one of the hardest
things to describe. Let me try to make it a little clearer. They usually
have a leaf stalk or petiole, and a broad area called the blade. This
blade may be one broad part, or it may be divided into several broad
areas that are separate from oneanother.
The leaves that have
the blade divided are called compound leaves, and the
confusion in describing them comes in knowing just how much
of what you are looking at makes up one leaf. If you look at
the place where the blade joins the stalk, or the place at which
the stalk joins the stem, at one or other place you should be
able to see a tiny bud waiting to grow. This is the key: a leaf
always has a bud where it joins the stem, a leaflet (a single
part of the blade if the blade is divided into several parts)
does not have a bud there because it is not joining a stem,
it is joining another part of the leaf.
So, now you should
be able to describe your plant as having a stem on which leaves
are carried, and you can describe the leaves as being simple
(the blade is all together) or compound (with several
If you really want to show
off, you can describe a leaf with the leaflets along a central stalk
as being a feather leaf (pinnately compound) or like a hand
(palmately compound). You can give the size and shape of the
leaf or leaflets ( round, strap-shaped, spiny and so on will do just
fine).If you have the leaf versus leaflet question straight, you can
also let the expert know if the leaves come off the stem right across
from each other (opposite leaf arrangement) or at different
places up the stem (alternate).
That is about all we should
need concerning the green parts of the plant. Does it have a flower?
Is it bell-shaped, tubular flaring at the end, flat, two-lipped or
too small to describe? Does it come by itself at the end of a shoot,
or in an open upright bunch, does it hang, or is it tucked in the
place where a leaf joins the stem? What about colour? And fragance?
With a little bit of luck
or inspiration on the expert's part, that should do it if you are
looking for help with a name. Supposing that your plant has a problem.
You may still need to mention roots, stem or leaves to tell where
the problem is, and then you need to look for things attached to the
plant (insects or mites) or rotting it or distorting the leaves, or
changing the color, which would be a disease or a nutritional problem.
Getting that much information
would make most experts feel as though it was Christmas, and most
of us could then help with the question that you are actually asking.
And that is what it is all
about. If your plants are drowning we will try to throw a lifebelt
rather than spraying them with a fire extinguisher. It makes all the
difference to know what is behind the cry for help.
to some better illustrations of these terms (these done by nature).
to Table of Contents