Skip to main content

Telling the trees from the forest

By April 17, 2020May 14th, 2020No Comments

“Taxonomy is the process of naming and classifying things such as animals and plants into groups within a larger system, according to their similarities and differences.” —Collins Dictionary.

Most of us are strong supporters of a healthy and expansive urban forest, but how many can name the trees that make it up, or understand their biology? Every year, the number of people who can identify the Earth’s organisms is decreasing, which means we have a smaller and smaller chance of finding new ones, and of becoming aware of what we are losing. This is not a sudden or new problem. When I was a botany student at UCLA in the late 60s, the beginnings of the current decline in people interested in what is out there and the increase in the people interested in molecular biology could be seen. During the 30-odd years I worked at the Claremont Colleges, it became even more pronounced. When I moved to Claremont in 1982, Pomona College had a botany department; that was subsumed by biology in 2004. When I started teaching labs at the Joint Science Department in 1983, we covered quite a bit of biodiversity and plant and animal anatomy. By the time I retired, that was greatly reduced. Don’t get me wrong: studying all the areas of biology is important, from understanding proteins to understanding ecological processes in the Amazon, but we still need to be able to identify actual organisms in order to figure out the relations between these areas and how and why things are changing. Experimentation is important, but observation and categorizing are equally so. In 2018, there was only one federal botanist for every 20 million acres of land. We need forest managers who can tell an invasive species when they see it. We need comprehensive herbaria that allow us to distinguish new plant species and to track changes in their location and rarity. We need people who can identify insects and birds and track differences in their populations over time. What can we do? We should be impressed and enthusiastic whenever new species are discovered, whether they are the ten new birds recently found in the Indonesian archipelago or the lichen and amazingly speedy mites found at our local Bernard Field Station. We can start to learn more ourselves by studying the plants in our own gardens, including the weeds, and taking a close look at the variety of their leaf patterns and stem structures as well as their flowers. We can sow seeds and watch them grow with our children and grandchildren, taking notes and making drawings of what happens as they mature, compete for space, and get eaten or lived in. We can look for insects, lizards,birds and other garden inhabitants and notice the differences in their appearance and in what they do. We can buy field guides to learn the names and get some information about the species we see. We can join one of the citizen science groups that are working to improve understanding of our current biodiversity and how it is changing. We can encourage schools and scout troops to spend time learning to observe and identify organisms as part of their normal activities. And we can let everyone know that we think this sort of knowledge is worth acquiring both as amateurs and as professionals. Let’s make taxonomy popular again (it really is fascinating)! Please check out the Garden Club website(, and you can always ask us questions at The Garden Club is a working group of Sustainable Claremont.

Demystifying Sustainability is an initiative of Sustainable Claremont (