Week 2: Plant ID and Soil Science

Morning Session: Arrgh! Identifying plants is frustrating

The word of the day for my latest OSU Extension Service Master Gardener class: frustration.

My small group leaned over trainee Patrice Thomas’ iPad and pulled up a website developed by Pat Breen, our instructor for the morning session. Breen is a self-described CPN, or certified plant nerd, and is a retired professor with OSU’s Department of Horticulture. His website (http://bit.ly/11PSOJ9) contains pictures and information on more than 1,700 mostly woody plants. It also offers a plant identification system that walks users through a checklist of features to identify an unknown woody plant.

Master Gardener class (Photo by Denise Ruttan)

OSU Extension Service Master Gardener trainees try to identify unknown plants using a website during a Jan. 10, 2013 class in Tangent. (Photo by Denise Ruttan)

“In many cases, frustration rises so that you begin to use expletives,” Breen warned us. “All the tomatoes and rotten vegetables have been taken away from you so you won’t be able to hit me with them.”

Fortunately, we only had to identify about a dozen plants. I pulled a few branches out of a grocery bag and set them on the desk in front of us. They were tied with tags and labeled only with a number and whether they came from a tree or a shrub.

I puzzled over a twig that was sticky to the touch. Its leaves reminded me of a maple tree with their five-pointed star shape. Its buds were glossy and globule-shaped.

I scoured the checklist on the website, one category at a time. Is it a tree? Check. Is the stem pendulous? Check. Are its leaves deciduous? Check. Are they attached to the stem with an alternate arrangement? Check.

Are its leaves simple or compound? Oh, that’s more difficult. With its star shape, the leaves appeared compound, similar to a leaflet. But my perception was erroneous. Here’s a trick to distinguish simple versus compound leaves: Look at where the bud attaches to the stem. Our mystery plant’s buds were attached to the base of its leaf, meaning simple leaves.

We were getting closer. But our search still didn’t return any acceptable results. I was beginning to wish that I did indeed have a rotten tomato to throw. I looked at our checked boxes again and widened our search. I removed “pendulous,” since that was incorrect. A list appeared that included the scientific names. We hovered the cursor over each of the names and viewed a close-up, pop-up image of the plant.

Tediously, we scrolled our cursor down the long list. “No. No. That’s not it. Nope.”

Finally, an image popped up of a green five-pointed, star-shaped leaf.

Our plant proved to be a Liquidambar styraciflua, or an American sweetgum tree. My fellow trainees remembered their California childhoods. Classmates Susanne Taylor and Patrice Thomas tossed out some of the tree’s common names. Its spiny, golf ball-sized fruit in particular has many names. The women remembered autumns as kids avoiding the cascade of its obnoxious fruit dropping to the sidewalk.

Dingleberry, some kids would call it. Or monkey balls. Nostalgic, unabashed laughter erupted from our group upon hearing that.

We had figured it out. But thank goodness there hadn’t been any rotten tomatoes around.


Afternoon Session: Getting to know your soil    

In our afternoon session, Melissa Fery, a small farms instructor with the OSU Extension Service, told our Master Gardener class the following story about a time when she was teaching grade-schoolers about soil.

“They touched it, played with it, smelled it, maybe some of the kids ate it, I don’t know,” Fery said. “I was trying to get kids to understand how important soil is to us.”

So she asked the kids to imagine the world without soil.

“There were blank stares for a moment, then somebody says, ‘You have to have plants, and you know, plants grow in soil.’ I said, ‘You’re right. That’s awesome,'” Fery said. “Somebody said, ‘There wouldn’t be any animals because animals eat plants.’ One boy shot his hands up and said, ‘The whole world would be naked!’ Naked in a first-grade class is apparently the four-letter word.”

Soil (Photo by OSU's EESC)

Hands hold soil, vital for plant growth. (Photo by OSU’s EESC)

Soil is all too often overlooked, but it is perhaps the most important part of the landscape. It helps plants grow better. It acts as a filter that protects the air and water. It’s thriving with billions of tiny microorganisms. And it’s really old.

It’s good to know what’s in our soil if we want to grow healthier plants.

“Understanding more about the specific nutrients can be really useful especially if you want to apply fertilizer at a rate that is right on target,” Fery said.

For example, it could be a sign of nitrogen deficiency if the older leaf material on your plant is yellow. If your leaf veins are purple, it could mean a phosphorous deficiency. Blossom end-rot in tomatoes, peppers and eggplants could be caused by over-watering, or perhaps not enough calcium.

Fery recommended that we collect samples of soil at various sites in our gardens or yards. She showed us the following three-minute video explaining how to do it: http://bit.ly/10nqDkt

After that, we can send those samples to a lab for analysis, which can cost between $20 and $40. A list of laboratories serving Oregon is at http://bit.ly/WoEPEd.

Fery passed out an example of a lab’s soil test report she had ordered for her property. She wants to grow blueberries and make jam, so she wanted to figure out the acidity of the soil.

I learned to read the report, what the different symbols meant and what the optimum levels for each nutrient are. There’s a good guide to that at http://bit.ly/SXkEkm.

Now I don’t take dirt for granted. Without it, we’d be naked.

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