Dichotomous key for leaf identification

Written by henri bauholz
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Dichotomous key for leaf identification
A tree in the field (Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Sherrie Thai)

The best aid for learning to identify unknown leafy plants is the use of a dichotomous key. These botanical guides present the user with a pair of choices. Each choice will in turn lead the botanist to another set of anatomical choices, eventually arriving at the correct identification of the plant and the corresponding scientific name.

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Beginning Point

The beginning point of a dichotomous key is very important. For example a dichotomous key for all the flowering plants of a specific region will likely have as its first choice a distinction between monocots and dicots, for these are the two major subgroups of the flowering plants, and they are easy to tell apart just by looking at the leaf.

Starting Points May Vary

Dichotomous keys may have various staring points besides the one just mentioned. For example, if our key includes all seed plants, the first step might ask us to look at the leaves of the plant to see if they can be characterised as true leaves or are coniferous needles that grow on cone-bearing trees and shrubs. This distinction is one way to separate the gymnosperms (conifers) from the angiosperms (flowering plants).

Leaves Are A Limiting Factor

A dichotomous key that identifies a plant by leaf is bound to be somewhat limited in its scope. For example, identifying the trees of the Northeast or of the Southeast of the United States is a task that can be accomplished with a dichotomous key for leaf parts.

Herbaceous Plants

Identification of herbaceous plants by leaf is a daunting task because there are so many similar species. Most dichotomous keys for wildflowers require more than just observing and characterising the leaf parts.

Final Step

A dichotomous key may take you through many steps before you arrive at the correct classification of the leafy plant, while on other occasions the pathway may be very short. Regardless, the final identification should reveal the scientific name, which includes genus and species. Often the common name is also given.

Not a Static Science

The classification of plants is constantly evolving along with our understanding. For example, seaweeds have long been classified as algae but now are classified separately from algae.

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