Yesterday afternoon I was troubled. There was an unresolved issue in my life which demanded attention: I was unsure of the identity of a common fern growing amongst the granite outcroppings jutting from the canyon slopes. I needed a genus name and preferably a species name to go along with it.
I had photographed the fern but I really needed a frond sample in order to make a positive ID. I set off up the dusty slope, trying to avoid being pierced by thorns borne by agaves, yuccas, and other plants which discourage overly familiar walkers.
I was also hoping to avoid an unpleasant confrontation with a nasty recluse who owns part of the canyon slope. An unpleasant character, he tends to skip the pleasantries and dive headlong into shouted invective. I haven’t met the man yet, but I’m sure I will one of these days.
I ranged back and forth, wending my way past scrub oaks and manzanitas, but couldn’t find the ferns I sought. Last time I was up on that slope I seemed to find the species everywhere. Finally I located a colony of the fern growing on and around a granite outcrop. Such a quiet and charming scene! I reclined and contorted my body in order to get these shots:
I plucked a couple of four-inch-long fronds and within moments I was back at the house, cruising the net in search of a visual match between my sample fronds and photographs of Arizona ferns. I was surprised to learn that there are quite a few fern species in this arid state which grow in desert and mountain environments.
I found one species of Cheilanthes which looked similar to my specimens; close, but not close enough. The web page which featured the species, a visual guide to Arizona ferns, mentioned in passing another related species, Cheilanthes lindheimeri. This brief mention compelled me to feed the Latin binomial name to Google Image Search. A profusion of images of the fern species scrolled down the screen of the Ipad, and each one matched my specimens in every detail. Cheilanthes lindheimeri is one of several lip ferns in Arizona which thrive around rocks and dry up and become dormant during dry spells, patiently awaiting a rainstorm which will come in time.
Visual matching is a quick-and-dirty method of plant ID which is enhanced by the ‘net. Books and binomial keys are the weapons kept in reserve for resolving the tough and subtle distinctions between species.
Some might question the value of knowing the scientific names of organisms with which we share this planet. I do enjoy erecting straw-man opponents! The Latin name of a plant, fungus, or animal is the ultimate organism search term for engines such as Google. The search results will include scientific accounts as well as photos and descriptions from informed amateurs. Why not optimize your searches so as to favor the educated?