Beginning Botany for Amateurs

The following excerpt is taken from a public domain biography or memoir about an influential British botanist John Stevens Henslow, rector at Hitcham, and later Professor of Botany at Cambridge.  It is not only an interesting account of a remarkable man, but also an introduction to how and why one might pursue a study of botany on an amateur basis:

“Whether viewed as a Professor at the University, or as occupying the more humble position of a parish priest, we find one aim and object always before him. We see the same thirst for science, the same untiring zeal to win others over to a love of the pursuits he so keenly relished himself, the same delight taken in training the young to appreciate and cultivate all truth, and in getting them to take an equal interest in the works and in the Word of God, as forming different parts only of the great volume put into our hands to read, and alike calculated to afford lessons for our growth in virtue and happiness.


[He combined his duties as parish priest with teaching in the village school]

Without omitting other branches of knowledge, some no doubt of more importance, he thought that Botany might, to a certain extent, be conveniently employed “for strengthening the observant faculties, and expanding the reasoning powers, of children in all classes of society.” Independently of the value of botanical knowledge abstractedly considered, the study of it leads to further advantages, and may be service able in many ways. It gives children a habit of observing nature, teaches them what kind of facts to notice, and how to observe correctly, so as to render their observations of avail to themselves or others. Even in the case of the children of the lower orders, it tends to make them more useful in the several callings they are likely to exercise in after-life. Young women in service, who often have the care of the children of the rich, — lads employed either in the farm or garden, — still more, those who may be engaged as pupil-teachers in other schools, — all these have the opportunity, more or less, of turning such knowledge to account. It furnishes them also with innocent and rational amusement in those leisure hours, which so many servants and poor idly throw away when their required work is done. Above all, it tends to raise their thoughts to the contemplation of the Creator, and to make them mindful, as well as observant, of that infinite wisdom and goodness, of which they see everywhere around them such abundant proofs.

But in order to obtain these beneficial results, botanical lessons must not be confined to telling the children the names and properties of plants, or how they may be artificially grouped, but must be directed to teaching them their structure, and their true affinities as dependent upon that structure. This was what ties as dependent upon that structure. This was what Professor Henslow strongly insisted upon, and made the groundwork of the lessons given in his school. Nor can it be effectually carried out without employing ” certain technical expressions,” which alone convey ” scientifically accurate ideas.” Accordingly, his first step was to get the children thoroughly to master these necessary terms, and to understand their meaning.

His habit was to attend the school regularly every Monday afternoon, for the purpose of giving a lesson in Botany, from an hour and a half to two hours in length. The botanical pupils were all volunteers, and limited in number to forty-two. They varied in age from eight to eighteen, and mostly entered with great spirit into the work set them, seeming thoroughly to enjoy it. They were divided into three classes.

A certain number of words, however, expressive of the characters of some of the leading divisions under which plants are arranged, were given them to spell correctly, before they were allowed to enter even the lowest of these classes. When they had gained their place in the third class, other words, designating the different floral organs of plants, were given them to spell in like manner. There was also put into their hands what was called the ” Floral Schedule’ a portion of which they were required to fill up. When able to do both these things correctly, they were raised to the second class. Higher lessons of a similar character were then set them, which they were equally to master before being raised to the first.

All this, however, will be rendered much more intelligible by an inspection of ” The Printed Scheme for Monday Lessons,” a copy of which is given on the annexed Table. A copy of the same scheme was ” given to every child, however young, who was ambitious of being classed as a volunteer botanist.” It will be seen that the first thing mentioned in the Monday Lesson is the ” inspection of a few species, consecutively, in the order on the plant-list.” This refers to a printed list, drawn up by Professor Henslow, of all the plants growing wild in the parish of Hitcham, with the addition of a few common trees in plantations. The numbering of the orders, genera, and species in this list agrees with ” Hooker and Arnott’s British Flora,” the orders having ” been Anglicised by changing the terminations of the genitive cases of their typical genera into ‘ anths ‘ (flowers) ; as Ranunculi, Ranunculanths, &c.” A copy of this Plant-list was ” given to every child who had fought its way into the third class, and could write down from memory the thirteen words of the five exercises at the top of the printed scheme.”





Above taken from Memoir of the Rev. John Stevens Henslow, M.A., F.L.S., F.G.S., F.C.P.S.: Late Rector of Hitcham and Professor of Botany in the University of Cambridge, by Leonard Jenkyns

If the floral schedule is confusing, I found the following summary of it in another book (but I misplaced the title of that book):

The ‘floral schedule’ is pictured above. To summarize it:
The botanical lesson included:—
1st—Inspection of specimens, anything special noticed and explained.
2nd—”Hard word” exercises. Two or three words (botanical terms) given to be correctly spelt on the next Monday.
3rd—Specimens examined and dissected and floral schedules, traced on slates, to be filled up. Marks allowed for accuracy, etc.
4th—Questions on the plant “organs.”
published by John Van Voorst, 1862

Most of us trying to learn the local plants choose flowering plants, and on focus on identifying the wildflowers by the colour of the blossom.  This is okay in the beginning stages, but we really need to learn to look beyond the colour of the bloom.  Not only can it vary (between plants, based on where they are growing and the time of year), but of course, much of the time the plant isn’t in flower. We should be able to identify it when it isn’t blooming as well.  It seems difficult at first, but it’s doable with a bit of time, steady attention and effort on our part.  Here are some tools to help, if you have others, please do share.

Learning to identify leaves and the terms for them– these are page images from an 1918 book so some terms are dated, but the images are useful for helping to identify the distinctive differences between types of leaves.

How to Identify Plants in the Field
This slideshow tutorial on tree I.D. is helpful. It’s even more helpful if you slow down, focus, look at the pictures and look again, from one to the other, and compare what you are seeing, what is the difference you should be noticing? It’s also available as a PDF file

Here’s another key

Here’s a tip. Sometimes the keys will contain terms that we don’t know, and some of them may seem scary.  But don’t run screaming and hide your head in a romance novel determined never to confuse yourself with such brain-breaking words again. Slow down, take a deep breath, and google the terms, one a time.  Here a little, there a little.  Do this on a regular basis, fifteen minutes one day, ten another, but at least once a week, and by this time next year you will be astonished at what you have learned.

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