Knowing your plants

Robinson, B.S., Inger, R. & Gaston, K.J. 2016. A rose by any other name: plant identification knowledge & socio-demographics. PLoS One 11, e0156572. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_213069982

Concern has been expressed over societal losses of plant species identification skills. These losses have potential implications for engagement with conservation issues, gaining human wellbeing benefits from biodiversity (such as those resulting from nature-based recreational activities), and early warning of the spread of problematic species. However, understanding of the prevailing level of species identification skills, and of its key drivers, remains poor. Here, we explore socio demographic factors influencing plant identification knowledge and ability to classify plants as native or non-native, employing a novel method of using real physical plants, rather than photographs or illustrations. We conducted face-to-face surveys at three different sites chosen to capture respondents with a range of sociodemographic circumstances, in Cornwall, UK. We found that survey participants correctly identified c.60% of common plant species, were significantly worse at naming non-native than native plants, and that less than 20% of people recognised Japanese knotweed Fallopia japonica, which is a widespread high profile invasive non-native in the study region. Success at naming plants was higher if participants were female, a member of at least one environmental, conservation or gardening organisation, in an older age group (than the base category of 18–29 years), or a resident (rather than visitor) of the study area. Understanding patterns of variation in plant identification knowledge can inform the development of education and engagement strategies, for example, by targeting sectors of society where knowledge is lowest. Furthermore, greater understanding of general levels of identification of problematic invasive non-native plants can guide awareness and education campaigns to mitigate their impacts.