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The key to identifying plants

The natural history group of the Kimberley Nature Park Society ventured out on Saturday, January 11 to identify some of the shrubs and trees that are sitting dormant, waiting for the heat and longer days to arrive. The morning arrived with sun, a comfortable temperature of -4C, and a fresh topping of snow, making for very pleasant conditions.

Photo by Kent Goodwin

A group of natural history buffs headed out recently to identify some winter plants.

Photo: Kent Goodwin

The snow-covered winter landscape of the East Kootenays can look like a confusing collection of bare branches and stressed evergreens, and it can be hard to remember the landscape bursting to life in the spring with the trees and shrubs lying quiet to survive the rigours of winter. But how do you identify those winter plants?

First you take a look around you and take note of what kind of habitat you are in. Then you look closely at the plant and answer some questions:

  • Are there any remnant leaves, dried-up berries, seed pods, desiccated flower heads or cones?

  • Is there anything noteworthy about the plant, like prickles/thorns, colour of the branches, or unusual shapes?

  • What form is the plant – is it a creeping, tall, single-stemmed, many-branched?

Ruth, Birgitta, Kent and John pondering a shrub.

Photo: John Henly

After taking an initial scan at the plant, you might already be able to identify it. If not, it’s really useful to consult a dichotomous key.

What’s a dichotomous key? It’s a series of questions about the organism in question, presented in pairs. Choosing the question that best fits the organism then leads to another pair of questions, which then leads to another pair of questions, eventually leading to an identification. That identification can then be confirmed by consulting a field guide. What the dichotomous key does is make you really look at the plant (or track, or scat, or other part of the natural world) and notice the fine details that may escape a casual look.

John, Kent and Ruth working through the dichotomous key.

Photo: Jim Duncan

The natural history group applied this process to a number of trees and shrubs, identifying several of them and gaining an increased appreciation of the vegetation hidden in plain site during the winter season.

Being interested in all aspects of natural history, the group also kept an eye out and ears open for tracks and birds. Sadly, the fresh snow covered all but one set of tracks, likely belonging to a coyote, and only one bird was heard, a chickadee. One of the group suggested that most animals are active at night, and the fresh snow covered any activity from previous nights. Why there was so little bird activity remains unanswered.

The natural history group welcomes new participants to their monthly outings. If you are interested in joining future outings, please contact either Laura Duncan ( or Ruth Goodwin (

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