Plant Identification Challenge


Henry set out to learn to identify 40 species of plants while walking on the Rim of Africa — a goal I mentioned in my previous blog post about plant identification — so I thought I would interview Henry about how he started becoming interested in plant identification and how he was getting along towards his goal. These photos of Henry and the plants come from our time waiting during the rain at Simonskloof Mountain Retreat.

cape flora identification

cape flora identification-6cape flora identification-5

Q: So how far did you get towards your goal of identifying 40 species of plants before the end of the Rim of Africa Walk? 

[Laughs] There is an insane diversity of plant species in this area! Even with Gael [pictured above, who owns a Fynbos garden shop in Cape Town] and Charles [an avid Fynbos fan] and numerous books, it is hard to determine the species of the plants we found.

We would find a plant’s Genus, or maybe just even the family name. After that, many times there are too many species to tell say what it is.

Q: Any guess towards how close you got to 40?

Nowhere close, and for me, Latin names [binomial names] don’t stick. I may have found out the latin name of something, but it would be difficult to remember.

Q: If you’re not really into the Latin names, how did you first become interested in plant identification?

It all started in foraging for food, which I started becoming interested in while attending a course in Finland 8 years ago. There was this really old, charismatic Finnish man who was teaching military survival skills, which included which plant and mushrooms you could eat. He’d pick up a mushroom we knew to be poisonous and tell us to try it. We’d say “no” and he’d put it on his tongue and quickly spit it out — all to prove you can taste test almost everything. He was nuts! Don’t try that at home.

Collecting plants, to eat or use allowed me to interact with the plants, to meet them, to understand them, respect them — not just looking at it and giving it a name. But most of the plants on the Rim of Africa are too woody, dry, or tough to eat, so it was different.

Q: Are there any plants (outside from the Rim of Africa) that you really like since you learned to identify them?

There’s one called the “sea-buckthorn,” that has bright orange berries with lots of nutrients. The story also goes that Pegasus, the flying horse-god, gained his ability to fly from eating the berries and leaves [even the scientific name begins with Hippophae, meaning “shining horse” in latin”]. The berries are used to make a popular drink in parts of Scandinavia, Germany, and Asia, and when collecting them the berries burst. You have to almost “milk” the branches and collect the juice in a jar. Its sweet and sour.

seabuck thorn collecting

seabuck thorn

Henry is currently working to develop the Wild Fjords Trail, a hiking trail experience in Iceland (where there is some potential for foraging for food while hiking — so cool!).