A Detailed Study of Keys (My Story)

Audubon Society

The first field guide I ever used was one based on identifying a wildflower by its color and overall form.  This was the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers.  Initially, I found it helpful since I had no other resource for wildflower identification.

I soon realized that this field guide frequently did not have the wildflower I had found — so I chose to purchase some additional field guides.  I also acquired field guides to plants other than wildflowers.  That’s when I discovered each field guide might have a different method for locating and identifying plants within its pages.  Some of them used a wildflower’s color while others had a dichotomous key.  And I even had a field guide which was arranged by plant families.  Now that was difficult for me to use!

I suspect I’m a lot like you.  I want a quick simple way to find a plant’s name.  Because I refused to learn a field guide’s method (key) for identifying a plant, I struggled my way through looking at each and every page of the illustrations — looking for the plant I had seen.

As I began looking at each field guide, I found some which used a dichotomous key.  Okay, so what is a “dichotomous key” anyway?

That is a key which uses pairs of statements about a plant’s characteristics.  You choose one statement which then points to another pair of statements.  And your choice with this second pair points to a third pair of statements.  You just keep going until you reach the end . . . and the field guide gives you the name of the genus and/or species of the plant.  (It’s kind of like following a flowchart.)

Then there’s the “pictorial key” method.  This one uses photos of a plant’s parts and you have to work through comparing your mystery plant’s parts (leaves, stem, etc.) with the photos.

And, of course, there are more types of keys out there . . .

One by one, I have studied each of these keys.  Now I can efficiently use a field guide to search for that new plant.  I get excited when I successfully utilize the key and quickly find the answer to my question.

As I investigated this topic of keys used in field guides, I was surprised to discover so many different ways to “key out” a plant. I decided to create a set of videos to share what I have learned. The videos include these keys:

  • flower color
  • flower color with shape
  • flower color with description
  • structural features
  • dichotomous key
  • pictorial key
  • patterns method and family key

(By the way, there is another type of key called a polyclave key which is not covered in this particular video series.)

Here are questions I’ve heard about creating this video series . . .

Why do I want to know what a plant is called?  Does it really help to know its scientific name?

When I know the correct scientific name for a plant, I can determine if it is poisonous (uh-oh!) or if it might be useful to me as a medicinal or edible plant (hurrah!).  I can then research it in other books and on the Internet to confirm my identification of the plant, as well as discover how other people connect with it.

How does it help me to know how to use a key?

I found that a guide’s key is really that — a “key” to opening the lock (and the door) to efficiently and accurately find a plant’s scientific and common names.

Why would I want to watch some videos when I can figure it out for myself by reading about a key?

Reading a written description of how to use a key can be challenging.  It is a somewhat “one dimensional” method.  However, if I can walk through the use of a key with someone else — someone who already knows how to do this — I can learn much faster and be on my own much sooner than otherwise.

Is there someplace else or someone else who could help me learn this material?

I have not found any videos demonstrating how to use a field guide’s key.  Nor have I found any videos explaining all these different types of keys.  (There may be some out there.  I just haven’t found them yet.)  I could certainly ask someone like a Master Gardener to teach me.  And yet, I like the idea of watching a video at any time of day and having that resource available to me for a quick review whenever I need it.

The video series called “A Detailed Study of Keys Used in Field Guides” is now available to you without charge.  Also, if you have not yet watched the initial free video about using keys, check it out!