Botanical Investigations

Many plants are beautiful to us, even if we don't know what they are. But, when you think you might be standing in poison ivy, it's time to think like a botanist. Learn how to do just that at this set of five exhibits about botany.

Botanists study plants, and use a tool called a key to identify plants that they don’t know. In this set of five exhibit stations, visitors can use a key to solve  mysteries, learn to recognize poison ivy, and see how some common plants spread their seeds far and wide.

After exploring these exhibits, visit this online botanical key of plants found in New England. Use it from home to identify plants and to learn about the diversity of native plants.

Hemlock Holmes - solve a botanical mystery

Using the clues that Hemlock Holmes presents, solve four botanical mysteries and become a full-fledged botanical detective! While you solve the mysteries, learn about plant, flower, and tree characteristics, and how these help botanists make identifications in the field.

Poisonous Plants - learn to identify poison ivy

Test your knowledge of poison ivy's many disguises and see how well you can pick it out of a crowd. Learn to think like a botanist to tell poison ivy apart from its common look-alikes.

Flying seeds - fold a maple seed spinner

Maple trees can’t fly but their seeds can! Fold your own maple seed out of origami paper and give it a toss over the balcony to watch it spin towards the ground, the same way maple seeds spin to the ground from a tree.

Hitchhiking seeds - investigate burdock hooks and Velcro®

Burdock seeds are spread using hooked seed carriers called burs; learn how one scientist's observation of this characteristic led to the invention of one of the most useful fasteners of the 20th century. Animals help burdock seeds travel when a bur hitches a ride on their fur or feathers, or on our own clothing.

Shooting seeds - explode a seed pod

Brush against or squeeze a jewelweed pod in late summer and you can see it explode. The seeds can end up 6 feet away. In this interactive model of a jewelweed pod, visitors re-create that event over and over, to see how this plant has adapted to efficiently disperse its seeds.


For more information about botanical identification and to learn more about native plants in New England, visit the online botanical key to New England plants at

The material in the Botanical Investigations exhibit group is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 08-40186. Created in partnership with the New England Wild Flower Society.