This might seem a bit silly but lately I feel like I’ve been increasingly doubting my plant identifications, to the point that I’m having a mini “crisis” regarding them.
To start, I should mention that I’m completely an amateur - I have no formal training in botany, I just read field guides and books and stuff. So I don’t know what the experience of identifying plants is as a professional botanist.
That being said, I know that botanists generally use dichotomous keys to identify plants. I’m no stranger to keys, and I’ve used them before in the outdoors. But these keys often rely on technical features that just aren’t available in most iNat observations. For example, at step 5 the key for Asteraceae of New England (link) tells you to look at pappi, which means if I am to use this key I’m pretty much stuck. Additionally, identifying down to genus or family using keys can be pretty hard in the first place, again because the relevant information may just be completely missing. Also all of this is assuming I’m using the key correctly and not misinterpreting plant anatomy (such as bracts, sepals, etc.). And then there’s the cases where I just don’t have any available key; this is particularly noticeable for cultivated plants.
So basically for identifying plants I’m pretty much going off the “general appearance” and all. And while it generally works, because people are for the most part not disagreeing with my IDs, it just feels so wrong. With a few exceptions, if somebody were to ask me why I suggested an idea, I probably couldn’t give an answer better than “It just looks like it”. I always have this nagging feeling in my head, like, “What if it’s not actually this plant? What if it’s a totally unrelated lookalike?”
I suppose know a little bit of caution never hurts - I’ve definitely avoided making incorrect IDs by making bumping up my ID from a more specific level, such as from genus to family. But at the same time, I could be more and more cautious and it wouldn’t stop. You know, maybe there’s another genus in the same family that looks very similar. Maybe there’s another genus in another family or class altogether that looks very similar. I can never know for sure, because there’s over 300,000 plant species and it pains me to know I won’t know all of them :(
Do you all have any thoughts about this? It’s a weirdly basic question, but how do you all go about identifying plants?