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Create a Field Guide of Local Plants

Gabriell DeBear Paye

Type of Entry:

  • Project

Type of Activity:

  • Hands on activity
  • group/cooperative learning.

Target Audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • Advanced AP biology
  • Environmental Science


Scientists have devised a way to catalogue and keep track of all the known plant species through the use of herbarium collections. An herbarium collection is an assortment of plant specimens. An herbarium specimen is a pressed, dried plant (or the important parts of a plant) which is glued or sewn onto a durable piece of paper. Also recorded on the sheet, the name of the plant, where it was found and other important information. If someone finds a species which cannot be identified, it can be sent as an herbarium specimen to a botanist who specializes in that particular plant family. If the experts are still unable to identify it and it is not found in any herbarium collection, then it is deemed to be a new species and a new scientific name will be assigned.

Field guides are books that contain photographs or accurate illustrations along with clear descriptions of plants or other groups of organisms such as insects or birds. Field guides are used by scientists, students and amateurs to help them identify species which they encounter but are unable to recognize. The use of field guides has become popular among nature lovers and there are many kinds in print for a variety of habitats and types of organisms.

In this activity students will become familiar with making herbarium specimens as well as utilizing field guides to help identify the species which they gather. They will use their herbarium collection to create personalized field guides with plants in their local habitat. This activity teaches students how to collect plants, prepare herbarium specimens, use keys for identification, and learn how scientists keep track of and name plants. In the process of gaining all of these skills students also become more sensitized to and appreciative of the flora around them.


This activity will help students answer questions about the types of vegetation which are growing around them and help them develop plant identification and classification skills. Individual students, or small groups of students, can focus their inquiry specifically on a given group of plants in their community and ask questions such as "Which are the medicinal plants around my school?" or "Which native tree species grow in this neighborhood?" It works well to break the class up into small cooperative groups of three to five students and assign different types of plants for each team to collect. For instance you could have a class where the various clusters develop field guides for wetland plants, weeds, grasses, non flowering plants and trees respectively.

The students will be required to go outside to a vegetated place near their school or home and responsibly collect and press plant specimens. Back in school, they will dry and prepare herbarium specimens and utilize field guides to help them identify species. Laminated herbarium collections can then be organized to create field guides.

Most of the preparation time involves gathering together the materials necessary to conduct the activity. It is also advisable for the teacher to survey the area where the collection is to take place before students go out in order to find the most suitable location for collecting plants.

NOTE: Be sure NOT to collect or disturb any species which may be endangered or at risk

At least one class period is needed for collecting plants outside. After collecting them, the plants must stay in the press for several days to get flat and dry. Then two to three more periods in the classroom are needed to prepare and identify the herbarium specimens.


Materials needed:

  1. Plant presses can be purchased through nearly any biological or scientific supply catalog although it is possible to do the activity without them. Heavy cardboard placed between two boards and tied tightly together works just as well. Even large, old, discarded hard covered books can be used to press plants.

  2. Sturdy, heavy cotton paper is best for mounting specimens, but drawing paper works fine.

  3. Professional herbarium specimens are sewn onto the paper with a needle and thread but if this is a safety concern for you, glue or tape may be used instead.

  4. Scissors and/or pruning shears.

  5. Clear contact paper for laminating specimens (optional).

  6. A collection of field guides for plants in your area such as weeds, wild flowers, trees or edible plants.

  7. A binder or folder for storing the finished specimens.



  1. Determine the type of plant you would like to collect. It must be a type of plant found at the site from which you collect such as weeds, trees or wildflowers.

  2. Go outside around your school or home with the plant press to find plants. When you find a plant which you are interested in, carefully cut off as many of the important parts (such as the leaf, stem, flower and root) as you can find on the plant. If it is a small plant you can pull the entire plant up and shake the soil off of the roots.

  3. Gently place the plant or plant parts onto a page of the plant press and cover it with another page. Each specimen should be placed in-between a new page or piece of cardboard. Then cover all of them with the cardboard and wooden boards and tie them tightly together. Keep the plants in the press in a dry, warm location for almost a week until they dry out and get flattened.

  4. When the specimens are ready, carefully place each species on an individual herbarium sheet and sew or glue them onto the sheet.

  5. Use your field guide(s) to help you identify the plants which you have collected. The field guide will have instructions on how to identify the plant. Some are easier to use than others. Find as much information as you can. Write down the common and scientific name and any other interesting pieces of information about the plant. Also write your name and where and when you collected it.

  6. If you choose, you can laminate the herbarium specimens with clear contact paper. Real herbarium specimens are never laminated but this may make your collection more durable.

  7. Punch holes in your herbarium specimens and put them in a 3 ring binder. Give the book a name such as "Grasses Around My School." Now you have both a home made herbarium collection and your own personal field guide customized for your area!

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

Method of Evaluation/Assessment: The completed herbarium specimens are the final product and can be used for evaluation. They should be neatly prepared. If the plants have been correctly identified then the student has successfully used the field guide as well. And there should also be a sufficient amount of supplemental information showing that the student has learned a lot about the species.

Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

More advanced students can make their own dichotomous key for their field guide. They can distribute the plants in the collection into their respective families, genus' and species. The key which they create can be placed at the beginning of the guide and used to help identify other plants in the field.

It can be fun to invite younger children for a nature walk and have the older students (who now know a lot about the vegetation around the school after completing these activities) show the children how to use the home made field guides for identifying the local plants. They can even show the younger children how to press plants so as to reinforce the botanical skills which they learned.

If different groups of students create distinct field guides then the field guides can be used as a springboard for discussions about habitats and plant communities. The teacher can ask about the difference in plant collections between a field, a forest and a wetland ecosystem. And why certain types of plants tend to grow together? And what types of animals would this mix of vegetation support?

Students can compare the types of vegetation found on their campus to what students from other schools find via online communications. This can lead to many possible research questions. For instance, students in different locations could compare and the effect of latitude, longitude, topsoil depth, soil moisture or altitude on the vegetation of their respective areas.

Students might enjoy learning about how various plants are used in medicine, as food and fiber, or by wild animals. A student might decide to study a particular plant of interest in more depth. Or how native Americans utilized wild plants. Or how plants are used in other cultures. The creation of a field guide can be a spring board for many ethnobotanical explorations.

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