Each day a symphony of bird songs, monkey calls, and pattering rain is carried through campus by the whispering wind. Rustling bushes, likely a coati or agouti crunching its way along the decomposing forest floor, add to the orchestra of sounds. Occasionally, however, something much bigger may be lurking behind the swaying green curtains surrounding you. Oh, yikes, sorry for the goose bumps – I’m just taking about resident naturalists preparing for one of our campus activities!

UGA Costa Rica offers a Plant-O-Rama: a hands-on workshop in plant identification for students, tourists, plant masters, and newcomers alike. Naturalists spend mornings or afternoons hunkered down in the cloud forest collecting leaf samples for this crash course in cloud forest plants. You may raise an eyebrow when they emerge from a dense sea of Heliconia leaves with a garbage bag. But taking a peek inside reveals a kaleidoscope of green and yellow; the forest’s smooth, rough, straight, jagged, citrusy and smelly plants morph into a visual and olfactory puzzle.

Students listen as a naturalist launches into the Plant-O-Rama.
Students listen as a naturalist launches into the Plant-O-Rama.

Guests take notes or simply absorb the clarity of the information flowing their way. The main objective of the activity is not only to teach guests the basics (and not so basics) of identifying plants and plant families, but also for them to practice and engrain their newfound knowledge.

The guests’ first hands-on task is to disassemble the bouquet of forest sitting before them, defining and dividing the plant samples as either monocotyledon or dicotyledon, which are the two divisions of flowering plants. A monocot, at the time of germination has one leaf sprout, and a dicot has two. As the plants grow, they develop specific characteristics that keep them identifiable as one or the other. A monocot typically has an elongated leaf with a sheathing central stem, and veins that run parallel to each other throughout the leaf. A dicot’s leaves are attached to either a stem or branch by a stalk and the veins are web-like.

Once sorted, the next round of musical plants involves grouping plants according to family. Naturalists name and describe characteristics of plant families while guests look, touch and smell their green subjects.

This bamboo palm waits to be sorted. Looking closely, you can see bright parallel veins stretching vertically on each leaf. It’s also not woody, so (check the hints above..) you know it’s a monocot. The plant has compound leaves, and with a striking resemblance to a palm, this bamboo palm falls into the Aracaceae, palm, family.

Having categorized these leaves as dicots because of their network of veins, these high school students attempt to identify the family. Members of the Rutaceae, citrus, family often have thorny stems (ouch!) and oil glands, which appear as lighter spots in the leaves. Members of this family also have a citrusy smell if the leaves are crushed. Well done, ladies!

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

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