Know Your Plants Conference 2010 – workshops

Full Programme

Dirty hands: A taster of RBGE’s Certificate in Practical Horticulture Course

Leigh Morris and Ross Irvine, RBG Edinburgh

This practical session will focus on vegetative propagation techniques and getting the delegates to “have a go”. The session will also look at how it can be used to develop a public programme.

Key take-home messages:

  • Practical horticulture should be taught in a practical way
  • RBGE as a badge/brand has credibility
  • Course is flexible with a core structure that can be taught anywhere
  • Brilliant links to BGCI, Eden, S Smith Horticultural Trust

When the Certificate of Practical Horticulture was introduced, applicants took all of the courses (8 needed for certification) – there was a huge demand. Different to RHS courses. See course brochures: currently these include Practical Vegetable Propagation; Pruning; Soils and Composting – feeding and nutrition; Seed Germination; Plant Care; Pests & Diseases; Plant ID; Garden Design; Fruit Growing; Vegetable Growing; Right Plant, Right Place; Basic Botany; Seasonal Tasks. RBGE also run ‘train the trainer’ courses, looking to share the course in other botanic gardens – where it can be run for cost recovery or profit depending on local need.

See RBGE website

Using a Herbarium – what is it and how can we use it in our programmes?

Gail Bromley, RBG Kew and Adele Smith, RBG Edinburgh

This workshop will explore the opportunities to use a herbarium in programmes and include a tour of the herbarium collection at Edinburgh, which holds c. 3 million specimens, including many important historical collections, going back over 300 years.

Key take-home messages

  • We need to foster an interest in taxonomy with young children
  • Preparing specimens is a valuable and easy way to engage people with plants
  • Looking at specimens from the plant hunters and their adventures is a good way to inspire and encourage children to develop an interest in plants
  • Tour of the Herbarium – links to historical specimens e.g. Darwin, Banks and Wilson – plant collectors
  • How specimens are used – research etc.

See Great Plant Hunt resource

We were shown how to prepare and mount dried herbarium specimens using techniques that have been used by many for the last 200 years, including Charles Darwin himself. We were shown how to record information relevant to the plant, such as where it was found and its abundance, soil type, situation etc. We looked at the value of this exercise and how it could be used with children or in family events.

Active Learning – learning by doing, including techniques for engagement

Sheila Fraser, Sheila Fraser Associates

Sheila Fraser has had two full time careers. The first was providing technical support for physiology and neurosciences departments in further and higher education, across Edinburgh. This involved designing and developing practical teaching materials at a time where technology was developing. She has worked on computer aided learning for both Medical and Veterinary graduates and developed interactive practical programmes using video technology. She established her own business ‘Sheila Fraser Associates’ in 1999. Her company focuses on training design and facilitation techniques. Sheila has also worked for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), and has a variety of roles. A particular focus has been on organisation development.

This workshop focuses on 6 ways to living up learning. 6 activities that are very adaptable for indoor or outdoor activities that will ensure all your participants are engaged and learning.

  • The workshop will include Meta Saga (metaphors and stories)
  • Creating a front
  • Through their eyes, time lines and a few others
  • Identify techniques that will reduce the need for PowerPoint and increase participation

Key take-home messages:

  1. No power point necessary.
  2. 4 key learning styles (activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists). As educators we have a ‘favourite’ style – we should try to develop ones we find more difficult.
  3. Workshop provided a set of 6 activities to use in any settings to facilitate learning.

Useful resources:

Summary Notes:

The most interesting and novel idea from the workshop was called Meta Sagas – using metaphors to tell personal stories. We went around the glasshouses in small groups and each used particular plants to provoke us to ask questions and tell stories from the original metaphor:

Wild bananas:
Everyone recognises the yellow banana in the supermarket, but actually there are 1000s of different bananas around the world.
Q: Can you think of things that look the same at first but when you look again you see that they are all different? (thinking about biodiversity, plants, people, animals)

Pitcher plant:
Is also called ‘Dutch Man’s Pipe’ due to the shape of the pitcher.
Q: Can you find plants with alternative names?
Explore the garden and make up alternative names using everyday objects.

String can be made from these leaves. What hidden talents do you have?
This plant has no heart but it has veins and a tale to tell. What else survives without a heart? I am a plant but I do not drink. Can you describe a time when you were thirsty?

Fasicularia Biolor:
In the same family as the pineapple – which is not hardy. But Fasicularia can grow out doors, so is therefore hardy. What are your inner strengths?

Needs the fruit bat to disperse it. What do you take from others?
Needs warmth, light, to be high up, it is a vine and needs support. What makes you feel healthy and happy?
Vanilla is used in foods, for perfume and cosmetics. What do you give to others?

Has a ribcage of veins, a bone structure that supports the leaf. What helps you live a good, happy life?



Basic Botany

Greg Kenicer & Emily Wood, RBG Edinburgh

Key take-home messages:

  1. Use of props, fossils etc
  2. Pollination methods and flower adaptation
  3. Demonstration of pollen tube growth

Useful resources:

  • Ebay – good place to buy fossils
  • Pollen tube growth demo –
  • DK Book EYEWITNESS GUILDS ‘Plant’ ISBN 0-86318-368-9
  • DVDs produced by ETI Biodiversity Centre on : Ferns/Pines/moss/leaves
  • German Company ‘Somso’ can supply accurate large model flowers/plant parts

Summary Notes:

An excellent session with Greg who was really enthusiastic about the world of plants. We began by looking at some fossils and matching them to plant specimens (clubmoss, gingko, cycad, horsetails, etc.).

Use of props was discussed, and during introductions each member gave examples of props they use (everyone uses props): blindfolds, bumblebee puppet, agave syrup, devil’s fir cone, kissing cockroach, cotton wool, blowpipe, cocoa seeds, the list is endless.

We had a session looking at pollentube growth, a fairly straightforward procedure with the correct saline/sugar solutions (see SAPS website) – this could be a very useful activity for schools to actually see this happening.

We also listed the cactus house and matched pollinators to flowers: typical examples: beetle – poppy like flowers; moths – cleome flower and humming birds on tubular flowers. Poisonous plants such as Datura were pointed out, also elephant’s foot yam which changes the sex of visiting insects.

Growing people, growing vegetables! – different ways of teaching vegetable growing techniques

Cath Evans & Laura Cohen, RBG Edinburgh

Growing vegetables session notes 

Key take home messages

  1. Planning activity: ‘3 reasons’ – Decide what your reasons are for doing:
    Its engagement, what are your aims, tasks and activities for delivery.
    How, who and where.
  2. ‘Raised beds rock’- make size that kids can stretch into middle?
  3. Start with growing techniques – leave pests and diseases to end – too depressing
  4. Volunteer helpers (granddad type figures) great for role models for kids.

Summary Notes:

Need to plan growing activities carefully. What to consider for growing veg?

  • What do I like (task?)
  • What’s easy to grow? Think: quick growing, space, crop rotation, site, effort, disease resistant
  • What tools are available?
  • Timing
  • Cost
  • Skills and knowledge

Setting up a workshop – get the balance right of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (practical) learning.

Making paper pots. H&S concerns over use of toilet roll tube – see HSE web advice. Tips: companion planting using garlic and onions to combat slugs.

APG for Dummies – plant classification made simple

Timothy Walker, University of Oxford Botanic Garden

Timothy Walker joined the staff of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden in 1980 as a trainee gardener and he is currently the Director. The post involves a mixture of teaching, administration, begging, plus looking after the Plant Heritage national collection of euphorbias, but no gardening – this happens at weekends in his wife’s garden if allowed.  In 1997 he was elected to the Lecturership in Plant Conservation at Somerville College, Oxford.  He has visited North Yorkshire, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Australia, Seychelles, South Africa, Canada, and America in search of plants growing in their habitats.

There has been a lot of nonsense in recent years about revolutions in plant classification and that Linnaeus has been replaced by a system based on DNA finger-printing.  All of the above is false; Linnaeus has not been replaced because it was never his system in the first place and DNA is useful but morphology is still vital.  I shall be trying to demystify the process of plant classification and plant naming.  During the work shop delegates will carry out their own classification exercise.  Hopefully delegates will go away less frightened by plant classification and convinced that it is important.

Presentation: Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3 , Part 4 , Part 5 , Part 6 , Part 7 , Part 8 , Part 9 , Part 10 , Part 11

Key take home messages:

  1. Taxonomy is an extremely old profession, dating back thousands of years, which is continuously evolving
  2. With flowering plants there are 462 families.  If you consider how many faces we recognise, then it is equally feasible for us to remember the characteristics of a large number of these families
  3. The emergence of molecular systematics and DNA sequencing has made it possible for the APG system to develop
  4. The APG system is the result of a collaboration of many authors, including women who have been named for the first time in taxonomy
  5. Monophyly is key to APG systematics.  This means that all groups at every rank in the hierarchy must be monophyletic – ie. They must contain all of the descendents of an ancestral plants.  This makes for some interesting family boundaries being drawn.

 Useful resources:

  • Albert, V.A., Chase, M.W. and Mishler, B.A.. 1993. Character-state weighting for cladistic analysis of protein coding DNA sequences.  Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 80: 752-766
  •  Frohlich M. W. & Chase, M. W., 2007. After a dozen years of progress the origin of angiosperms is still a great mystery, Nature 450 20/27 December: 1184-1189
  •  The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, 2009, An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III.  Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. Vol 161.  Issue 2: 105-121

Summary notes

 This was a highly entertaining and stimulating session.  Timothy Walker, who is an excellent orator, took us through the history of  taxonomy, highlighting some of the significant giants who have made significant contributions to modern taxonomy – Theophrastus, John Ray, Tornefort, Linnaeus, De Jussieu, Bentham & Hooker, Darwin. We looked at the difference between monthetic and polythetic families and how evolution was brought into taxonomy in the 19th Century. 

Midway through the session, we were divided into groups and presented with the challenge of classifying a box of Lego.  This promoted a great deal of discussion and resulted in each group coming up with its own classification system.  This activity was an excellent introduction to taxonomy and led neatly to the second half of the session which focused on the Angio Phylogeny System.

Timothy introduced the APG system and looked at the impact it has had on taxonomy.  Dicots no longer exist as a single group, having been divided into eudicots, core eudicots and asterids. Interestingly, there is notable similarity between the APG and Benthum & Hooker classifications, with 89% of families remaining unchanged.  This suggests that identifying plants using their whole morphology results in accurate classification.  The classification of monocots, however were considered to be in a mess and APG has significantly helped sort this out.  As to the future of taxonomy, we do not have all the answers and as such it is still evolving.

Teaching and Learning in the Outdoor Classroom

Professor Justin Dillon, King’s College London

Presentation: Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3

Key Take home messages:

  1. Classroom based and outdoor learning are not fundamentally different – it’s just the context that’s different.
  2. Many learners have a dominant learning style, but good education does not limit their learning to that style but will explore and develop them.
  3. Impacts to learning seen to be greater where there is: control – choice – challenge – collaboration.

Useful resources:

  • Learning Working Group DEMOS? 2005:3
  • ‘Border Crossings’ FSC website, Cotfield et al, 2004:53
  • AstraZeneca ‘Thinking Beyond the Urban Classroom’

Summary Notes:

Thinking and group work: egg box activity, finding different objects with similar characteristics (similar to environmental bung).
Forces activity: look at everyday objects and discuss where different forces are.
Looking at the world through rose tinted specs: have a pair of specs with green filters on and describe to your partner what colours you see. Swap to red and then blue tinted glasses.


Plant ID and Keys – how a key works and the skills needed to use one

Dr Heather McHaffie, RBG Edinburgh

Key take-home messages

You can flip through picture guides, but to be sure of identification, learn to use keys. Using keys becomes easier with practice. It’s a good idea to start with things you know but do follow the key properly. You will learn lots of interesting information by reading keys as you use them.

  • Check distribution: that the species identified does occur where you found the plant (be alert, there are strange things in gardens)
  • Hold a hand-lens close to your eye and bring the specimen up towards it
  • Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, try things you think it might be but keep checking and go back if it doesn’t make sense


  • New Flora of the British Isles by Clive Stace, 3rd edition 2010, Cambridge University Press
  • The tree name trail by Jonathon Oldham, 2nd edition 2003, Field Studies Council/Forestry Commission
  • The Fern Guide by James Merryweather, 3rd edition 2007, Field Studies Council
  • Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson, 2003, Cassell ‘over 2400 wild flowering plants’
  • The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose, revised and updated by Clare O’Reilly, 2006, Frederick Warne ‘how to identify wild flowers, trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland’ (NB. needs a few corrections – participants can email Heather for details)

First, some ferns
The same thing as APG (Angiosperm Phylogeny Group DNA-based reclassification of flowering plants) has been happening for ferns and bryophytes. E.g. Equisetum, horsetails, which are fascinating, ancient (don’t say primitive) and only one species is a pest. Horsetails used to be called ‘fern allies’ as they had roots, so were vascular plants, but spores like ferns, not seeds. It turns out they are ferns, similar to Marattiales, very ancient ferns. Ferns are in Stace (book). There are only about 70-odd native ferns in all of Britain; in any given area, maybe 30; and you’d see in normal life, maybe six.

Starting to use keys
Normally when teaching keys you’d first spend the whole morning looking at a very familiar flower, such as buttercups, to learn basic terms of specialised vocabulary such as ‘carpels free’. Try something you do recognise first to learn how to use a key; and also use keys to learn what to look for (characters) and what you will therefore need to collect if you are bringing samples back from the field to identify. Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe has good colour pictures to check, after identification has been made. Do check distribution – that the species is known to occur where you found the sample plant.

Using a popular key
One of an extensive series from the FSC, this colourful wipe-clean, fold-out chart depicts 34 of the 138 tree species found in Britain. Limited information: only a few words are given on each decision, species or group identified. Be alert – it’s easy to cheat by knowing the species or common name and looking at the pictures, and just using it as a picture ID.

Fun to know:

  • Thuja plicata (Western red cedar) smells of pineapple
  • Grand fir leaves smell of oranges
  • All firs have a (tiny!) sucker-like base where their needles attach
  • Cedar cones disintegrate on the tree, leaving a spike

Ginger Franklin (RBGE) tells her classes: Pine in Pairs (needles) – Spiky Spruce (needles) – Firs Fruity (crushed needles). We keyed out 10 conifer samples. Ginger might start with four, then say, “I’ve discovered a new species, does it fit your key?” to also cover the concept of classifications changing.

Using an advanced key
Francis Rose (book) is used most of the time in teaching students, especially about British native species. String a x10 hand lens around your neck if in the field (or for children in classes). “If you can use it properly, it makes you look like a genuine field botanist – and you can see better!” So: hold it up to your eye and bring the specimen up to it. The general key is on page 24, to start at the very beginning. Later when you recognise families you can go straight to the family and key out in the family, but to start with it’s much easier and faster to start at the beginning of the book. If you use the key for everything you find, weeds on the way home for example, you’ll familiarise yourself with the language used. E.g. corolla=considering all the petals together, may be joined or not (corolla-lobes for what look like petals but are actually joined); calyx=considering all the sepals together, usually green but may look just like petals, for example in crocus.

Hints: don’t hurry, if you’re not sure of a decision, try all options, but make a small mark in pencil where you made the decision so you can go back to that point if necessary. Careful, petals can be joined at the very base – test for this by pulling off all the petals simultaneously – do they pull off together still attached in a ring? Superior/inferior ovaries? Superior – above where petals are attached: you might see ripening seeds on top of the sepals. Inferior – a swelling underneath the sepals: e.g. “an apple is an inferior ovary” because the green-star bits are the sepals, and the fruit is below them, if you think of it with the stalk as its support underneath.

When you get to the family sections, do read the description at the top to check, before jumping into keying-out genera and species. More translation (flower shapes): wheel-shaped=flat; funnel-shaped=tapers; bell-shaped=flares out.

The more you use keys the more you will be familiar with what you need to look for. Some things remember to observe in the field – such as habit (aquatic, climbing, tree); if there is a basal rosette; whether leaves grow up the stem… can take notes and photographs.

Introduction to Micropropagation (plant cloning) – with practical session

Margaret Ramsay, RBG Kew

Presentation: Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3 , Part 4 , Part 5 , Part 6 , Part 7 , Part 8

Key take home messages:

  1. It is vital that we work with scientific and horticultural staff to engage visitors with the hidden aspects of botanic gardens work. Providing real examples of conservation in action brings the importance of plants to life.
  2. Contact with real experts is fantastic – both for their expertise and passion
  3. Science practicals can also aid teaching about other subjects and skills e.g. H&S, citizenship 
  4. It is great fun to have a go at scientific techniques – and as the cauliflower practical demonstrates – surprisingly straightforward

Summary Notes:

During her engaging workshop, Margaret brought to life the reasons for micropropagation in conservation with a number of examples both local and global. In particular she highlighted the role of micropropagation for:

  • growing plants that are difficult to grow using other means e.g. Sophora tormira is an extinct species from Easter Island
  • enabling us to apply extra tricks to get seeds to germinate/grow – e.g. long soaks to remove inhibitors, removal of seed coats, different regimes of heating/cooling e.g. pitcher plants often have short seed viability – we can remove seed coats
  • overcoming some of the complications associated with transporting plants – firstly micropropagating specimens are sterile, reducing pests issues and secondly they are obviously not wild (CITES)
  • growing on multiple specimens from a very small number of parent plants e.g. currently Kew are growing wild orchid seed from Madagascar and then sending plants back to the country of origin for sale – this helps to reduce wild collection of mature specimens

Plant cells have the benefit of being totipotent meaning that each cell has the potential to regenerate an entire plant – the challenge is working out how to achieve this. In her examples it was striking how much of this work was through trial and error – and this gave the session an exploratory feel that I think would be engaging for visitors to botanic gardens. For example the growing media ‘recipe’ for enabling growth using additives such as pineapple juice, coconut and seaweed!

Margaret also highlighted her work with orchids in the UK and in particular the lady slipper orchid.

During the second part of the session we were able to have a go at the micropropagation session Margaret devised for secondary students using cauliflower.

 The final part of the session looked at the role of cryopreservation – storing small quantities of vegetative material in liquid nitrogen, which can then be used to produce a new plant. This is particularly useful if the plant’s seeds are unsuitable for storage.

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