Keying Practice for the Beginner

Ready to rock'n'roll!

I love my dissecting microscope! Great for bugs too!

I've been feeling the need to justify buying the The Jepson Manual, Vascular Plants of California, Second Edition. $85 for CNPS members. Full price is $100. To say nothing of that microscope which, incidentally, has wonderful WOW! value - just stick anything alive (or once alive) on the platform - bugs fished out of the pool, tiny flowers - anything will do.

So I decided to ID once and for all (hopefully) the Ribes bushes that are growing in the north valley behind the house. I didn't plant them, but I've planted various Ribes elsewhere in the garden.

When we beginners attempt to key something out, a good hypothesis is absolutely required. I knew I was dealing with something in the genus Ribes, probably R. malvaceum or R. sanguineum.

I don't have the skills to start from scratch - with the Key to Groups.

Groups - first page

Groups second page
I also can't start with families, but wish I could. I've never persisted with attempts to learn on my own. Maybe I'll dig out Glenn Keator's California Plant Families, and the fun Botany in a Day book by Thomas J. Elbel, which also teaches the main plant families, and have another go. Or better, find a class.

So I just looked up Ribes in the index and found their page — and also that they are in the family Grossulariaceae. Jepson has a nice graphic showing the families. Pen points to Grossulariaceae.

 And then I jumped to the Ribes genus page:

and got going with the yes-no questions, which is what a dichotomous key provides to help you ID plants. For a nonsense example: Does it have 1: leaves or 1': spines. It has spines. So look at the first choice in 1' which could be 17: hairy stems and 17': smooth stems. Numbers get large because all the 1 options have used up all the smaller numbers. I just simplified this process below for the Ribes questions to show you the trip through the key that led me to an ID.

Nodal spines?

1. Nodal spines 0.
1' Nodal spines present.

In my sample, there are no spines. The bark exfoliates, which could be a key characteristic, but I'm not sure.

No spines on me! The mystery plant growing in the garden. Stems look dark because they are wet. Taken early in the season - December, I think.

Ribes with spines include, for example, Ribes speciosum, Fuchsia Flowering Gooseberry (among other

Ribes speciosum, fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, has spines.


Next question asks us to look at the hypanthium.

2. Hypanthium disk-or saucer-shaped, barely exceeding ovary.
2' Hypanthium cup to tube-shaped, clearly exceeding ovary.

What the heck is one o' them? Definition of Hypanthium: where the calyx, stamen, and a partly fused portion of the corolla forms a cup shaped tube that surrounds the carpels. Sigh. One technical term is often defined in terms of others! You can click the above and explore if you want! Seems to be the bit of the flower that nestles around the seed bearing bits?

My sample has a tube-shaped hypanthium, 2'.

My sample - late in the bloom period.

Ribes with a disk or saucer shaped hypanthium include species like Ribes viburnifolium, Catalina perfume.

Ribes viburnifolium, Catalina perfume, has a saucer-shaped hypanthium


So, under 2', tube shaped hypanthium, the next pair of options is:
6. Sepals yellow.
6' Sepals white, white green, pink, red, or purple.

My sample has pink sepals, as you can see above. Funny, I thought they were petals. They're sepals? Hm.
The only plant within the 6. sepals yellow section is  Ribes aureum.

Ribes aureum, golden currant, is the only spineless ribes with yellow sepals. Hm, who knew!

Anther tips

Arrh! Now we be getting down to the nitty gritty. Time to get out the dissecting microscope! Anthers - they be the boy bits. (Not sure why I'm talking like a pirate all of a sudden.)

8. Anther tip rounded or blunt, with cup-like depression.
8' Anther tip rounded or blunt, with no cup like depression.

I was excited to be able to mash open a flower and focus the microscope on the anther tip and found that there was definitely NO cup-like depression! Sorry, no pictures. Though the microscope does have some way you can attach a camera and take photos, it seems very complicated to set up and I haven't bothered.

BTW maybe I could have done this with the hand lens, but I'm not sure. I just wanted to play with my microscope.

Here's a little aid for those like me who have to just double-check their basic flower part terminology:

Thanks for the image, U of Illinois.


Nittier and grittier! Styles be the girl bits, or the middle of the girl bits, under the stigma. 

11. Styles glabrous at base.
11' Styles hairy, at least at base.

My sample's styles were hairy! it was so exciting to see them under the microscope, narrowing down to a definitive ID!

If styles are glabrous (smooth), then further options branch out into, for example,  Ribes nevadense, which I'm trying in my garden this year, Sierra currant; and Ribes sanguinium. This you will know is a popular flowering currant — but it doesn't do well on my property, sad to say.

Note: Interesting to read that  R. sanguinium var. glutinosum has pendent inflorescences, pink to white, and R. sanguinium var.  sanguineum has more erect inflorescences, and has red sepals. Wonder if I'll remember this? You do pick up tips while keying.

 R. sanguinium var. glutinosum has pendent inflorescences.
Many showy cultivars are available for the garden. This photo does not come from my garden.

But we're not there yet…

Hypantheum again...

14 Hypantheum wider than long; styles free, infl spike-or head-like, dense.
14' Hypantheum +/- longer than wide; styles fused at least in basal ½; infl. a raceme, open. -YES 

Infl. is short for inflorescence. It's not enough that Jepson uses technical terms. It also abbreviates them to keep the book short. Well, shorter (it's 1568 pages long).

14 is true for only one, obscure species. The questions following 14' are:

15 Hypantheum white, barely longer than wide.  Ribes indecorum.
15' Hypantheum pink, +/- 2 X longer than wide. YES —  Ribes Malvaceum!

Mine is Ribes Malvaceum! Whoo Hoo! Chaparral currant!

Course even with Jepson you can never be absolutely sure of anything. Nature bursts the confines of taxonomies.

So that's what you are - Ribes malvaceum, chaparral currant, for sure!

Ribes indecorum has white blossoms - Blooms January. Drought tolerant. Lovely.


Now we are down to the variety - Here I'm not so sure.
16 Leaf blade adaxially dull olive green - var. malvaceum.
16' Leaf blade adaxially bright green - var viridifolium.

Hm. Hard to tell. To me they look pretty green. But maybe not bright green. I'm not good with color this way. According to CalFlora: var. Viridifolium is not known to exist anywhere near our county! Now, that is not definitive. Nursery bought natives may come from elsewhere. But I've never heard of it and I think I'd have noticed that on the label.

It's possible the plants popping up in the north valley are descendants of an original wild Ribes that was growing when we arrived - and which died before I could propagate it. Not sure why - other than that it was an old plant. I'd like to think they are local.  But because I planted nursery-bought Ribes malvaceum, I'll just never know.

It's been a long time since my very first foray into keying at home. You can read about it here, if you like this sort of thing: A Tale of Two Solanums.


Brent said…
Thanks for the step-by-step process. I too have an underused Jepson manual. I don't have a microscope, but I saw some digital microscope products at a trade show a while back made by a local company called BigC. Prices looked good ($100 for a basic digital microscope), though I think they have risen since I last looked at them.
Town Mouse said…
Ah, well, I'm glad this was for beginners - I don't think I could have followed it had it been more complicated.

Very enjoyable, though, and much like a puzzle, a mystery how Jepson reveals the true identity of our currant friend. Or maybe not?
I love keying out things. I do it a lot with fungi, as so many little brown mushrooms look like every other LBM! I agree with you, I'm pretty darned certain my mystery volunteer Ribes is malvaceum. I thought that when I first looked at it, as it is a little different from my sanguineum. I've had the same issue with R. sanguineum here, it's not ever really happy here. The blooms are scant, it never really has thrived. My volunteer though, growing on the north side of the house, is tough as nails. Shame it is growing through the step on the back deck though...I hate to cut it down, but will probably wait until I can take some cuttings first!