Identifying Wildflowers, Part One: Using Books

clustered snakeroot closeup

Sanicula odorata (clustered sanicle)

A question on the Maryland Native Plant Society facebook page got me revisiting how I identify wildflowers. The more I typed (and the more I deleted), the more I realized it’s a rather complicated process, though it gets easier the more you do it, of course.

There is some great information on the internet but there is too much information. I suggest starting with one of the classic books. You will have to learn some basic terminology, but that’s part of the fun.

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Lawrence Newcomb; Little, Brown and Company) has a logical key system that’s easy to use once you get the hang of it. You have to be able to answer very specific questions about the plants, but it isn’t forbiddingly technical.

Wildflowers in the Field and Forest (Steven Clemants and Carol Gracie; Oxford University Press) organizes by flower color. Within each color section the listings are further organized by leaf arrangement, then leaf type, then number of petals.

A Field Guide to Widlflowers/Northeastern/North-central North America (Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny; Houghton Mifflin Company) also organizes by flower color; within each section are headings like “Spurred Orchids in Showy Spikes”, or “Tight Pink Clusters, Tiny Flowers”, which makes flipping through a little easier.

If there’s a downside to Newcomb’s, it’s that plants in the same family (and sometimes genus) can be on different, non-contiguous pages, so you can’t look at similar things all at once. The problem with the other two guides is that flower color can vary – sometimes a lot. There are regional variations and there can be variations within the same stand of plants, especially when it comes to pinks and purples.  The first patch of moss phlox I ever found had pure white flowers, but in Wildflowers it’s in the “pink” section, while Peterson’s has it in the white, pink, and blue sections.

The pictures in Wildflowers in the Field and Forest are good, but mostly show the flower. Newcomb’s and the Peterson guide both have excellent drawings of flowers, leaves, and stems, and the drawings in Peterson’s have arrows to show the differences between similar species.

If I had to recommend just one book, it would be Newcomb’s, but with all three you should be able to identify all but the most obscure flowers (or latest alien invasives).

Books specific to the area you’re hunting in can be a big help, too. I’ve gotten a lot from Finding Wildflowers in the Baltimore-Washington Area (Cristol Fleming, Marion Blois Lobstein, Barbara Tufty; The Johns Hopkins University Press) and Eastern Woodland Wildflowers and Trees (Melanie Choukas-Bradley, Tina Thieme Brown; University of Virginia Press).

Wildflowers in the Field and Forest was published in 2006. I have the 1977 edition of Newcomb’s, (it was updated in 1989), and the 1998 edition of Peterson’s. I bring this up because of another problem: names change. More on that in Part Three.

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