Field Techniques

Plant Identification

Do Now in your books:

1) Skim read through the piece of text given to you by the teacher.

2) Identify as many words as you can that describes the plant (adjectives).

As a class, let's categorise these words into themes.

In your 2.1 investigation, you will be measuring:

  1. Plant diversity - how many different plant species are there?

  2. Plant abundance - how many of each plant species are there?

So you need to be able to identify the different plants you encounter in your investigation.

Skill: Making Observations to Identify the Name of a Plant

Leaf features are most commonly used when identifying plants because many plants are evergreen (have leaves all-year round).

Leaf shape

Broad - e.g. karaka

Narrow - e.g. tītoki

Heart - e.g. kawakawa

Leaf edges

Some leaves have teeth along the edges, others have non, and some are lobed.

Teeth - e.g. kāmahi

No teeth - e.g. pohutukawa

Wavy - e.g. māpou

Tufts - e.g. perching lily

Fronds - e.g. ferns

For more information about the fern frond, go to this website:

Leaf arrangement

To be precise, plants either have 'simple' leaves or 'compound' leaves of individual 'leaflets. But the average person generally refers to both leaves and leaflets simply as 'leaves'. There are basically four ways in which leaves (or leaflets) can be arranged on a branch or stalk: in tufts, hand-shaped, alternating or opposite.

Hand-shaped (3+ fingers) - e.g. pūriri

Alternating - e.g. pōhuehue

Opposite (all in pairs) - e.g. kohekohe

Skill: Recording Observations

Making observations is more than just merely looking or seeing. You must make notes and record the features you see and sometimes feel or smell. When making observations, it is important to create a detailed record of these observations as evidence of your findings and to aid your analysis.

Record 1: Photographs

When you are out in the field collecting data, you should take photographs of plants you come across.

Focus the camera on plant features that will be helpful in identifying the plant species.

  • Individual leaves (size, colour, edges, texture)

  • Leaves on a branch/stem (to focus on leaf/leaflet arrangement)

  • Flowers

  • Fruit/seed cones

Some other tips are:

  • Photograph the leaf next to a ruler to show the size of that leaf.

  • Systematically label each picture with the date, location and a brief description.

Record 2: Observation Notes in a Log Book

When you are collecting field data, you should write down all your observations in a log book.

Your observation notes should be organised by date and location. You could also use a table to keep your observation notes organised.

Skill: Using Observations to Identify the Name of a Plant

Every plant has two names:

  1. Common name: These are used locally and may vary by region or country.

  2. Scientific name: These are unique names used by the scientific community to accurately and universally identify species.

As you do your research, you will come across both names. For this assessment you are only required to use the common name in your assessment tasks.

You are NOT required to distinguish between different varieties of plants. For example:

  • There are many different types of coprosma. You are not required to distinguish between coprosma robusta and coprosma repens.

  • There are many different types of plantain grasses. You are not required to distinguish between ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and broadleaf plantain (Plantago major).

There are 3 ways you can use your observations to identify the name of a plant:

Karamu (coprosma robusta)

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Mirror bush
(coprosma repens)

Broadleaf plantain (Plantago major)

1) Use a biological key

A biological key sets of statements that act as clues leading to the identification of an organism.

App: NZ Trees
(Apple App Store and Google Play Store)

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) has developed an app called NZ Trees to help identify native trees. While the concept is similar to Flora Finder, NZ Trees is more of an interactive learning tool, as it prompts you to select the tree’s characteristics such as leaf edges, leaf surface, leaf tip, leaf shape and leaf arrangement to determine the species.

App: Flora Finder
(Apple App Store only)

Created by botany experts at the University of Otago, Flora Finder is an app that will identify your plant as well as providing a detailed description.

All you have to do is upload a photo and it will analyse the shape of the leaf. The app will also ask you for a few key characteristics to help with the identification process. You can also browse through Flora Finder’s full plant collection.

Your teacher will have a selection of biological keys for you to borrow.

Website: New Zealand Plant Conservation Network
If you have a little more time on your hands, the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network has a useful database of over 9,000 flora species. You can refine your search by factors like native or exotic, colour and conservation status. You can then download a PDF fact sheet about each species.

2) Look through a Guide Book or the Internet

Your teacher will have a selection of books and laminated resource sheets you can use to compare your observations with.

This is an awesome website: Native New Zealand Plants (University of Auckland)

3) Ask an Expert

You are allowed to ask experts such as:

  1. The guides that work at Arataki Visitor Centre during the field trip

  2. The Facebook group "Plant Identification New Zealand/Aotearoa"

  3. Biology teachers, especially Mrs. Stavert, Mr. Allington and Mrs. Skevington who are Ecology specialists.