Finding Greater Meaning in Plant Identification

As I have spent time exploring the wonders of the natural world, one thing which continually astonishes me is the copious amount of diversity that there is. Everywhere I go I find new plants and wildlife, I love it! But I have gotten to the point where it is no longer enough for me to just see and recognize a plant species, I want to know what it is; to know its story and how it fits into the environment. Exploring with more experienced outdoorspeople helps, they often know how to identify many plants in the location they frequent, but this isn't always a viable solution. There are many times where I am the most experienced hiker in the group and am asked what different plants or animals are, or I come up with my own questions from my observations. In the past when such circumstances arose I would write the question down or make a mental note and look it up when I had the chance. One such experience happened only a few months ago.

I was working as a guide near Southern Utah and noticed something that I thought was very odd while guiding a sunset hike. This hike was very interpretive so I shared different facts about the various trees and other plants along the trail. As I was pointing out a patch of manzanita I realized that much of the bark near the center had peeled off and the stems appeared to be dying. My first guess was that it was diseased or perhaps a bug was killing it slowly, but I didn't have a definitive explanation. After I finished the tour I decided to do some research and get to the bottom of it. It took several different searches, but I finally found a solid answer. A manzanita bush can live for up to 50 years, but as the plant gets bigger it kills off the old growth to preserve nutrients for the younger parts. Because of how arid the area is around Zion National Park, the manzanita needs to be very efficient with how it uses the limited nutrients. With this new tidbit of information I was able to help my clients gain a greater appreciation for the efficiency of this particular plant.

As a side note, the Green Leaf Manzanita is quite possibly my favorite bush! The smooth red bark contrasted with the bright green leaves creates a beautiful plant. Not only that, but several parts (the berries and leaves) are edible! They don't taste great though...

This situation worked out great, but only because I already knew what the plant was called. I recently found a resource that helps solve the problem of limited knowledge about local plants and wildlife. Now, I haven't been advocating for any specific items or apps in any of my articles because there are great products from all sorts of different companies. The advocacy for an app in this article is not related to any sponsorship but rather comes from my personal experience with it that has not been replicated anywhere else. My new favorite phone app from this summer is called Seek. It is free, doesn't require any account creation (you need one in order to save your observations but that is totally optional), and can work completely offline; no cell service needed! What this app does is it allows you to take a picture of a plant or animal and then it will identify it for you. It isn't successful in identifying the exact species 100% of the time, and sometimes it requires multiple angles, but in my opinion, this app does an incredible job most of the time. It can be a lot of fun to use too, oftentimes it feels like you're in a real-life Pokémon game, gotta identify them all!

For me, knowing what life surrounds me helps me better appreciate the wild world we live in, and I hope it does for you too. When something is given a name, it becomes relatable, and no longer just some seemingly inanimate option (in the case of plants). I think that this can create greater motivation to take care of those things. When engaged in recreational activities we have the responsibility to watch over the areas we explore and play in. Because if we stop caring, the great outdoors is going to get a whole lot smaller.