Barking up the right tree: a note on plant identification techniques and their relevance to knowledge

By Madhu RamnathonFeb. 03, 2022in Food and Water

One of the most highly developed skills in contemporary Western civilization is dissection: the split-up of problems into their smallest possible components. We are good at it. So good, we often forget to put the pieces back together again.

Alvin Toffler

Identifying plants
It is quite commonly assumed that the leaves, flower and fruit are essential for the nomenclature of plants. Indeed, most plant keys focus specifically on the flower and fruit; the number of stamens and petals, the position of the ovules in the ovary, and the position of the ovary itself become crucial factors in determining the family of the plant species in question. I spent much time in botanical gardens and was trained in this system.

Such a system of looking at plants is alien to the forest peoples I have lived with (Central India, Borneo) and from whom I learned another way of looking at plants. Though
not counting and quantifying plant parts to ascertain plant identities in the Linnaean manner, indigenous plant identification is extremely precise: it has to be, as most
of their needs, and even their survival, depends on this. A few examples would help in understanding the kinds of categories that are of daily importance in forest-life.

Indigenous plant knowledge

For instance, one needs to know the basics about toxins. There are several plants used to kill fish: leaves of certain plants, the roots of some, and the fruit of others (Cansjhera, Derris, Randia) are used to stupefy or kill fish; these specific plant parts are processed (mashed, dried and powdered) and
used to gather the fish that are stunned. Many species of plant foods too have toxins (Dioscoreas, some aroids, etc.) and need to be sufficiently neutralized before consumption.

Woods are known according to their strengths as well as their flexibility before being put to use. They are also known for their ability to hold a fire. The latter quality is especially useful when sleeping outdoors. Logs of Terminalia chebula, Anogeissus latifolia, Terminalia tomentosa stay alive and up through the night and are preferred; some logs burn only in the company of the woods just mentioned, and some, like those of Diospyros melanoxylon, are avoided as they are angry and tend to spark! Such knowledge may be categorised as ‘wood anatomy’.

There are hundreds of food plants, whose precise identification includes many more aspects than the mere outward recognition of the plant. The depth of the tubers that are dug up, and the processing required before they can be consumed, is species specific. The stage of maturity of leaves when they are harvested is crucial; too old and they don’t cook, too tender and they become a useless mush.

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