A leaf by any other name

Friday begin well. The sun was shining. Seven am starts were a figment of my imagination. In fact all I presumed to know was that we would be taking a nice stroll around the grounds of UCD and doing some “leaf analysis”. So far….so lovely. I had a näive notion that we would do as instructed and Karen would divulge all the bits that we needed to know. As soon as we arrived to the lake, we were knocked off our complacent teacher pedestals. “What is a plant?” “Huh?”. Not panicking, my training kicked in. “It has chloroplasts and a cellulose cell wall and it’s green”. Eileen makes some similar, straight from textbook comments. Turns out we don’t really know what a plant is after all. Karen puts us straight, or crooked, depending on your viewpoint, by telling us about all the weirdo exceptions out there. She tells us about the slug with chloroplasts on its back. Now I want to meet this slug. My faith has been shaken. I start to wonder about other fundamentals. It’s scary to be on the other side of the metaphorical desk. I start to feel my student’s pain. But any notion that the test is over is quickly dispelled. Karen begins the drill again. ” What is a leaf?”. I point hopefully at a flat green thing hanging from a branch. We’ve been reduced to non-verbal prehistoric communication. And it only took two minutes. I sigh with relief when Karen tells us we can identify our leaves, now we know what such a thing is, back at the lab. I envisage google, Karen’s expertise and us the willing students, soaking up all the tree- type knowledge. I should be suspicious when Karen takes us for ice-cream. No normal ice-cream either, a 99 and..wait for it, a flake. We’re being thrown into the pit of hell after lunch and we sit there, poor fools, nibbling on our treats.

A recent study by the British Tree Council revealed that 8 out of 10 ( that annoying statistic) people couldn’t identify an ash tree by its leaves. I have to presume this study was predicated on the emergence of ash die-back disease and the need for public vigilance. I can’t say I drew much comfort for being amongst the ignorant. Beginner’s nerves to the fore, I empty out my leaves and seize on some easy ones. I have five maples in my garden so I’m reasonably confident. Karen gives us a tree-identification book and leaves us to it, but it takes us a half an hour to figure out there’s a leaf key in the first chapter. Epic fail. We identify five or so leaves using the book and a cool little app that Eileen has discovered, which can identify leaves from a photograph. Then we hit “the wall”. The remaining leaves look vaguely like other leaves and yet different. We’ve been given an hour and a half plus time for lunch to figure it out. I consider hiding the evidence, given the prospect of a hungry afternoon. What if a few leaves just disappeared..After some Internet plundering, we abandon hope and decide that eating is important too.

After lunch, Karen swoops in to the rescue and then tells us identification isn’t all that important for what we’re doing. What the?. After getting over that shock, we start into CLAMP analysis. Which basically involves determining shape characteristics of leaves. We’re given some training and handed a laptop with a CLAMP spreadsheet. We spend an hour or so examining leaves and pressing one on the keypad. After a while, I realise I’ve hit the number two, even my brain wants me to move on. Karen comes back and crunches our figures in a statistical programme. The mean annual temperature of Dublin was …the precipitation was…Wow, you can tell this stuff from a leaf?.

I am suddenly very impressed and forgive Karen for the last four hours of tedium. Now I really want to have a crack at the fossil leaves.



This weekend, serious tree guilt persisting, I visit Donadea forest park in Co. Kildare and get to know my tree friends a little better.



Dr. Caroline Elliott-Kingston and Dr. Karen Bacon identifying leaves


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