Fieldwork, Observation and Notation systems in Floristic Botany

‘Providing names for plants subordinates them to our understanding.’ (paraphrased, Genesis 2: 3-5, after Lysaght 1997: 440).

Keywords: species, plants, fungi, geography, botany, philosophy, identification, specimens, vouchers, herbaria, methods, science.

There are still relatively few Irish field botanists, but a new heyday of Irish botany has arrived (Synnott 1997). Maria Long has illustrated figures that show that more botanists in Ireland have joined the BSBI, year on year in the last decade (2006-2015), than from the period 1964 on, with peaks in 1985 and 1997.

What do botanists do with their developing knowledge of Irish plants? What sort of works ought a botanist produce and publish for the wider society in Ireland is a worthwhile question to ask (Doogue 1992) of one’s own botanical activity and career. Listing the plants living in different sorts of places is what doing floristic botany is all about. Ecology is about learning how to communicate results about plants to the wider society, so that both the conservation of plants and what plants need to live and reproduce are actually taken into account by land managers.

Listing plant names involves observation, plant recognition, plant identification and note taking, all the while knowing precisely where one is, in terms of spatial geography and habitat, in Ireland. Each plant location in Ireland has townland and vegetation contexts. In addition, plant recording can include temporal, personnel, taxonomic reference, Ordnance Survey of Ireland raster grid and other contexts, all of which can become the normal part of a scientific biological record or a reference collection (Speight 1977, 1978).

All this geographic and spatial cognitive activity while reacting to seeing plants happens outdoors, so many kinds of notation systems are useful to record the history of these sightings, and to note any ecological or scientific interpretations, species determinations and so on, that cross one’s mind while in the field, and when thinking, about each place and detail seen, afterwards. Botanists parse the visual sensory stream that we experience into plant species, so much so that a decade ago the notion of botanists as ‘bipedal optical scanners with species recognition software’ was elaborated in a Dublin Naturalists Field Club programme and newsletter editorial. The literature that inform botanists of species concepts is diverse (Fox 2013), and includes biology syllabuses, natural histories, floras, identification guidebooks, science journals, geographic information, communication and research technologies, such as ‘Google Images ‘. Getting to know species in somewhere new and unfamiliar, like in tropical forests on a Caribbean island (Fox & Cullen 2014, Fox 2014), is a fully engaging process of botanical research.

In more than twenty years of floristic botany, mainly on lichens, but also on mosses, liverworts, macro-fungi, woody plants, micro-fungi, seaweeds, etc., one tends to develop habits, some ways of doing things that are retained, and some notation systems that are discarded or kept when improved, for the purposes of providing a rich record of species lists from fieldwork.

Historical geographers, librarians and archivists have taken to mine our collective printed botanical floristic information heritage (Collins 1992) for cultural ends. Indeed, Robert Lloyd Praeger’s printed legacy (Praeger 1934, etc.) has already attracted considerable attention (Collins 1985, Lysaght 1998), and now increasingly that of David Moore (Johnson 2011) and Ellen Hutchins (Mitchell 1999, Heardman 2015).

Narrative order
We have for several decades been fans of narrative order; i.e. the operative order that events and observations happen, during a day out in the field. The training for undertaking the Natural Heritage Area survey (Lockhart et al. 1993) instilled the value of a system of note numbers, linked to place points with interpretative ideas, facts and details, which were marked upon photocopied sections of the relevant six-inch map. HF’s contribution to this fieldwork, undertaken in 1993 and 1994, was mainly in County Wexford and County Wicklow. The Northern Ireland Lichen Survey, from 2002 to 2005 during which 150 sites were surveyed, for our part also employed a notation system of narrative order by stop numbers, dependent woody plant host details and short species lists. This narrative order based system, combined with the Mycorec reporting package, was also used in a fungal survey of Fingal Parks (Cullen & Fox, 2006).

Specimen numbering systems are a normal part of the continental European and North American botanical traditions. We can draw an example from H.A. Imshaug (d. 2011) whose legacy in making tens of thousands collection numbered voucher specimens, subsequently digitised in the MSC herbarium, facilitated the generation of a lichen checklist (Fox & Cullen 2014). A narrative order is a good basis for such a career long specimen numbering system.

Species name prompt caveats
We have taken a rather reactionary stance on observational prompting from reading text in the field. By that, we mean reading a species name from a prompt card, and then looking for that species in nature. This heightens the danger of delusion with cursory field observation. Conversely, using a prompt card to recording a search with a null result for a wide range of taxa would be interesting scientific data, for any area of search with a defined search effort. However, the recording of positive data on mapping cards is synoptic. By that, we mean that each one field observation itself is not of prime importance, and it is more that the repeat observations, of a series of views of a range of diagnostic characters needed to identify the species as present in the area of survey, that is considered the valuable currency, for record collectors to gather, in summary for onward communication.

Psychology of recognition
Writing on the psychology of recognition, Lawley (2011) indicates that the favoured haunt of rare species are rare habitats, and so these are rewarding places in which to search. The effort of naming every organism encountered in any place, according to the morphological differences between them, and being alert to the unfamiliar, requires calm, considered and reflective identifications. The critical questioning attitude towards the descriptions in identification manuals are the hallmarks of a good botanist, seeking to build a repertoire of species they can recognise in the field. When each habitat is assiduously quartered, geographic novelties are found by searching in places where others have not thought to look. Looking in the field, collecting material, illustrating and controlling the collection at the microscope (W. Labeij, in conversation) is a process that lead to the initial detection of interlopers from the southern hemisphere (Lockhart, Hodgetts & Holyoak 2012: 512-513).

Mapping cards and walking
Filling out mapping cards is nonetheless both a crucial and industrious habit, one that allows one to visually consume a considerable land area on foot, and rapidly gain a presentable synoptic record of the species present. This is ideal for novelty hunting; first records for set areas, and so forth. However, often operative order is not preserved, repeated observations of individual species are not tacitly acknowledged, and thus using a mapping card is an exceptionally wasteful system, always forcing synopsis, that inhibits more extensive notation, and limits, or rations, the person to plant contact time in the field.

Towards a general method of notation
We have this notion that in the field, the creative act in observation is notation. Notes in the field are signals for the mind (D. Stewart, in conversation). Writing diagnostic characters, species names and ecological words in the field helps create identification guides, and so we value this, and that reading, as an activity, detracts. We have the view that observation and recording is more significant, and that the main decision points in keys to species should be in mind, when outdoors. This allows the dividing lines between species to be interpreted in view of the morphological expressions observed in the field. Spending time outdoors reading field guides or keys as an aide memoir is not time well spent, but we would rather spend time observing detail in nature and time sampling to bring for laboratory study.

In recording vegetation, the discipline of setting out a quadrat of 10m, 2m or 0.5m, can be an interesting exercise in data collecting. All sorts of ancillary information can be documented in addition to the vegetation layer; e.g. soil samples can be taken for later analysis, voucher specimen packets for species determination validation, and so on. A system of releve plots, set out in experimental arrays (Gordon 2007) of 3 replicates in 5 sites ‘of a kind’ can be helpful in circumscribing within site, and between site, variation in particular habitat types.

HF has been involved in several quadrat surveys – the Moneypoint tree trunk epiphyte vegetation quadrat survey to bioindicate air quality in 1990 and 1991 for the Electricity Supply Board – and the Brackloon wood survey in 1997 for Coillte (Cunningham 2005) – and the FORESTBIO woodland vegetation study in 2007, 2008 and 2009 for COFORD. These surveys all provoked a consideration of and practice of notation systems; such as DAFOR scales for species cover abundance, as well as dependant epiphyte host substrate notations for 10m forest vegetation monitoring plots, discussed below.

Notation systems for epiphytes
In studying epiphytes, there is a structural dependence of epiphytes on woody host trees and shrubs for their micro-habitat, up in the air on the tree bark surface. Detailing this dependence is an important activity in modelling the correct evaluation of individual woody plants as the settling points for species dispersed in the aerobiota as ascospores, conidia, soredia and vegetative diaspores. Learning about the micro-habitat preferences of individual species, requires attention to recording the substrate details is a synoptic manner.

For many years, we have used a system of woody host plant substrate notation, initially observed in conservation site reports, and have adapted it to a standard contracted form of abbreviation which is resistant to misconstrual on re-expansion. This substrate notation revolves around noting the genus of the woody plant host, using double letter codes with leading capital and trailing small letters, followed by a hyphen, followed by a two letter coding for the tree part, to indicate whether a trunk, bough, branch or twig is providing the structural support for the epiphyte.

Epiphyte epidemiology
This notation system can be taken further in epidemiological studies. For newly colonising species, we have taken to note (Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, in conversation) that a species Teloschistes chrysopthalamus, occurs ‘as a single thallus with small apothecia, in the axil of the 8th annual node of branches from the south side of a willow bush, Salix cinerea, on the east shore of Whiddy Island, 30 August 2015. If it takes 2 or 3 years for willow bark to become a suitable substratum for lichen growth, and the thallus is 30mm in diameter, then it might be upwards of 3 years old, then the epidemiological inference is that this species colonised at some stage in the time period 2009 to 2013. Counting back branch nodes, marked by annual bud scale bark scars is a non-invasive method, while counting branch tree rings in cross section is suitable method, if woody vegetation sampling, and some note is taken whether the part of the twig, with the lichen thallus on, is live or one to several years dead attached. On a card, an epidemiologically instructive notation might be: 1380 Telos chry, Sx-br, 8yo, 30mm, fertile. This cuts to the chase, identification secure, and reports only the ecology. The logic of the taxon Teloschistes chrysophthalamus also needs to be abstracted.

The broader consideration here is to plan for using an optimal notation system through your botanical career, and for long term plant observation projects, so that data losses, between field observation and resulting scientific syntheses, are nil.

Writing a field guide
To engage with creating pleasant botanical activity outdoors for eco-tourism, one has to really consider what litany is to be recited about plants in habitats in nature. The Latin names of plants are a start, together with technical details in species memoirs, and a recital of previous finds. To make this, one needs to collate results from fieldwork, observations and notation into an illustrated guide book to the species in order to facilitate others to make species identifications (Fox 2014). This will ensure the propagation of floristic botany, as a pleasant outdoor visual and cognitive activity, for the wider society in Ireland to engage with.

Digital camera media streams
The practice of recording photographically the critical series of observations of the diagnostic features of particular plants and animals, needed during the identification process, with a digital camera is an interesting development.

Some plant recorders think little nowadays of making 500 photos from a day’s outing, and the macro-lens views can capture lots of interesting features for analysis. Editing this media stream series, down by 10-fold or more, for onward presentation, is a key method for improving the overall image quality.

The pioneer in Ireland with botany image websites must be Stuart Dunlop of Donegal Hedgerow fame, who has made a huge contribution to biodiversity recognition in Ireland, with his media stream on his website from 2003 to 2007 which continues to this day as a blog. In the DNFC from the last few years, Pat Lenihan has been publishing many photos, on the DNFC event reports website. His images from weekly outings, ensure that a wide range of taxa that are named in the field by specialists and naturalists present on site, are captioned, harnessing the collective knowledge of people attending with years to decades of experience in Natural History species recognition and identification.

We have often retold the story of the making of Roger Phillips 1981 Mushrooms, which hinged on Roger setting up a camera studio in the corner of the week long British Mycological Society residential forays, starting from the amazing summer of 1976 with the autumn that was alive with mushrooms, and photographing choice exhibition collections from the residential foray, which were also dried and scientifically vouchered into the K herbarium, for a few years, until his set of photographs and technical descriptions were second to none.

There is an incredibly exciting future to 2020 for natural history illustration in Ireland using digital camera media streams, something that Mark Cruise on Twitter and Vincent Hyland in Derrynane are pushing out the envelope, with underwater digital videos of the behaviour of subtidal inshore fauna and the dynamic forms of seaweeds in the seawater column.

It would be remiss not end this essay by mentioning the Irish Association of Botanical Artists, with many artist members talented and fluent in watercolour and book design and production, which with some social crossovers, and exchange of natural history and horticultural materials to illustrate, will also be part of this Irish botanical media stream into the future. Conceptual line art in botany is a key area that requires attention in Ireland, and more intensive integration into biology syllabi, and the advice of a botanical artist Claire Dalby on making line illustrations has been highlighted too (Fox 2015).

Atlas 2020
The distribution of plants in Ireland is on the agenda to 2020. In this essay, we would encourage botanists to examine their notation systems, and try and improve them, extend them, with all mod cons, so that they have a rich legacy to draw from. While people are out botanising, why not point your mind to other pressing questions about plants, the number of flowers of a plant that set seed, annual reseeding success, annual vegetation gap dynamics, micro-habitat humidity, and plant point temperature measurements at a noted time on the survey day, to name but a few attributes that we have scant original data in Ireland for.

The day of the natural history mapping distribution card and the tick list, invented in the late 1950s for the first atlas in 1964, has evolved to the computer age in the 2010s to Mapmate, Recorder and Mycorec. These computer applications have been in use by recorders in Ireland from at least 2003, 1997/8 (P. Green, pers. comm.) and 2002 (the authors) respectively. The most troubling aspects of these computer systems have been (1) when a recorder has a large batch of records in an excel spreadsheet to append, and the precise process involved is tricky to discern and unclear with a worrying risk of things going awry, and (2) during the bedding in period in the early 2000s of the concept of ‘names in current use’ when the species name dictionaries were highly irritating and forcing recorders to select among species synonymies they did not agree with.

Species concepts in use in literature from continental Europe (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc.) and biogeographic regions of Atlantic Europe like Macaronesia, and not solely Britain alone (e.g. Fraxinus angustifolia, Cladonia stereoclada, Toninia kolax, Caloplaca polycarpa) always have played a role in informing the taxonomic repertoire of botanists studying Ireland. Indeed, taxonomic literature from New Zealand and Terra del Fuego has been helpful in learning about southern hemisphere aliens that are growing naturalised in Ireland. With the era of national checklists, many of the obscure taxa from many parts of Europe have come to light, and in the internet age now, with global access to taxonomic species concepts from arctic, temperate and tropical zones, there are interesting efforts afoot in harmonization of nomenclature between biogeographic regions. The use of regionally ground-truthed distribution cards and species tick lists, that act to enforce by consensus one’s taxonomic opinion, do not automatically hold universal appeal with the Irish psyche; ‘au contraire’, a psyche that is more comfortable with taxonomic nuance and ambiguity as a proxy for a scientifically laborious description of variation. One must be pluralist enough to accept that there is always a role for continental European and exotic taxonomic literature in Irish botany.

The migration to complexity will continue to 2020 with digital image stills, YouTube instructional videos on how to observe particular species, and GoPro footage of fieldwork, together with watercolour illustration, natural history sound libraries, and line art for naming the plant parts. All these ought now to be part of the Irish botanical record.

We are grateful to the late Willem Labeij (d. 2011) for inspirational conversations on art and floristic botany in Ballygriffin, Kenmare in the late 1990s. For insightful comments on reading an early draft of this article in 2015, we are grateful to Dudley Stewart, Quest Campus, Charleville Castle, Tullamore.

For commissioning botanical surveys in Ireland, we are grateful to Electricity Supply Board, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Declan Little, Woodlands of Ireland, Mark Wright, DoE(NI), Hans Visser of Fingal County Council, and John Fennessy of COFORD, National Council for Forest Research and Development.
For support in Saint Lucia, we are grateful to Michael Bobb, Roger Graveson, Chris Sealys and Margaret Ishmael Severin.

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Howard Fox, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin D09 VY63, Dublin.
Maria Cullen, Dublin City University Innovation Campus, Glasnevin Hill D11 KXN4, Dublin.

Reprinted from
Irish Botanical News 26: 7-15, (March 2016).

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