Identifying Australia's Plants — A key to all flowering plants in Australia

If taxonomy and systematics are foundational sciences for biodiversity, then identification keys are the means to bring taxa — the products of taxonomy — to the people. Identification keys for organisms are the principal means by which a user can find the name of an unknown specimen, thus unlocking the wealth of information for which the name is a key.

In Australia, many species of flowering plants, including rare and important ones, cannot be readily identified because the relevant identification key has not yet been written. And yet, an identification key to all flowering plants of Australia is within our grasp. In a major project in KeyBase, I've gathered together for the first time all available identification keys to flowering plants in Australia. The next step will see these keys updated to conform to modern taxonomy, and new keys written to fill the gaps. The result? The world's first key to the plants of an entire continent, and a significant new resource for all Australians with an interest or need to identify plants.

The task may seem like a large one, but it's achievable. Having compiled all available keys, it becomes possible to do a gap analysis to determine what remains to be done. And the answer - we're nearly there.

The Flowering Plants of Australia project in KeyBase currently contains:

  • a key to families, modified from the Flora of Australia (Try it out)
  • generic keys for 93% of 274 Australian Plant Census (APC1)-listed families, and
  • species keys for 86% of 2784 APC-listed genera
  • The keys include 13056 species, 56% of the 23376 APC-accepted species2

1The APC — a nationally agreed consensus checklist of accepted species — provides the benchmark, both for understanding where the gaps are and for determining what changes need to be made to existing keys to harmonise them to the most current taxonomy.
2Figures do not include Orchidaceae, which have not yet been dealt with in APC

These figures show how close we are to having a complete key to all Australian taxa — well over half way.

With recent funding to Eubio Consulting from the Australian Biological Resources Study, the following significant steps have been completed:

  • The key to families (originally from Volume 1 of the Flora of Australia and based on a Cronquist taxonomy) has been largely harmonised to the APC’s APGIII family taxonomy. In particular, all petaloid monocots, most previously treated as members of Cronquist's family Liliaceae, have been sepgregated into their APC families
  • The first couplet of the original key to families has been removed. This couplet provided the traditional spliut between monocts and "dicots". Not only are "dicots" as traditionally recognised no longer valid under the APC, but this first couplet was a substantail challenge for students and others trying to learn about Australian plants for the first time.
  • All species in all keys have been harmonised where possible with the APC. This has mostly involved replacing old names with new names

The next major step is to add as many new keys as possible. As an indication of how achievable it will be to complete this project, well over half of the genera for which there is no available key have five or fewer taxa. Writing keys to such small genera is generally very straightforward.

Note that while some of these keys will be able to be written and added straightforwardly, many will need to be written by appropriate taxonomic experts. Funding will need to be provided for this. Accordingly, a concerted campaign in the near future will seek to raise the funds for a 3-year project to complete the keys.

How can I help?

As discussed above, the two main tasks towards completion of a key to all Australian taxa of flowering plants are:
  • writing and adding new keys for the xxx genera for which there is currently no key; and
  • modifying existing keys to add missing taxa (mostly new species that have been described since the keys were written).
Use the following links to view:

Families for which there is currently no key to genera
Genera for which there is currently no key to species
Genera for which there is currently no key to species

If you can help with any of these, please contact me at kevin.thiele@eubio.consulting