What are Wildflowers?
There are many different ways that we could define “wildflower”, but in this guide “wildflowers” are any herbaceous flowering plants which grow in the wild. Usually when we think of wildflowers, we think mainly of those wild plants with colorful, showy blooms. Yet not all wild herbaceous plants have conspicuous or beautiful flowers. Some have small, drab flowers, and are either pests in lawns, gardens and crop-fields, or entirely overlooked by most observers. Here in this guide I present a growing assortment of species, both showy and weedy.
The guide currently covers only North American wildflowers. This includes not only those species which are native to the continent, but also those that have been introduced from elsewhere and have become naturalized to the climate and habitats. Some of these introduced species escaped from cultivation, while others were brought unintentionally. In either case, the result is the same, and the plant can now commonly be found growing out in the wild.
Wildflowers are found growing in all sorts of habitats all over the world. From crop fields to forests, and from pastures to lawns, wildflowers are found everywhere. They grow in meadows, in woods, and in deserts. And many of the weedy species can be found growing on roadsides all over the place.
There are several different ways that you can go about identifying wildflowers. You can consult a technical key that uses words like ‘floccose’ and ‘scabridulous’, which, although they convey specific meaning to a botanist, are difficult for a beginner to master, and can take the fun out of identification. You could consult a few printed field guides, and in many situations these will suffice to identify many of the more common species. You could also consult a local botanist. Or, you could search Google images for something like “purple wildflower Pennsylvania”, and hope that something comes up that looks like your specimen.
Ever since they were first printed, illustrated, non-technical field guides have been the best way for beginners to identify living things, and wildflowers are no exception. Printed guides do have their problems, however. First, printed guides become outdated as species get re-classified and more is learned about a species. Also, a printed guide cannot possibly contain every species of wildflower in North America (about 10,000). So when our printed field guides inevitably fail us, we usually have no choice but to turn to the internet for help.
But the internet can be a very frustrating source of information, especially when you don’t know where to start. There is also the danger of getting misinformation from an unreliable source (and these often abound on the web).
That is why I decided to start an online field guide. Now when your printed field guide fails you, you know just where to turn. eFieldGuide.com provides a reliable source of non-technical information about wildflowers. So here are a few tips about how you can get the most out of the features available.
Sorting the Species Profiles
First, the profiles in the guide can be sorted by state and/or flower color. You can decide what color flowers you want to view, or from what state the flowers should be. Again, you can use these options together, or independently. This can be very helpful in identification.
So when you come across an unidentified species of wildflower, you can start on the identification process by sorting the guide based on the state and flower color that matches the specimen(s). You can then go through that assortment and find species similar to the specimen(s), by comparing the various plant characteristics, as described below.
Also, if possible it is a good idea to take several photographs of a specimen’s flowers, leaves, and overall form, so that you can reference them as you are searching through the guide. That is much better than trying to remember everything about the plant in your head. And if you don’t have a camera with you, you might at least take down a few notes about the plant, or even make some sketches if you want.
The first thing that you will probably notice about a plant is the color of its flowers (in fact, in most cases you probably will just ignore the plant unless it is in bloom). The next thing that you may notice is the shape and size of the flower. All of these are good clues to help with identification. So once you have entered the appropriate criteria, you will want to start going through the profiles looking for species with flowers of a size and shape similar to your unidentified specimen.
The next thing that you will probably notice about a flower is its shape and size. This is fairly straightforward, and you don’t necessarily need to know what the different flower shapes are called. But if you have an understanding of different flower shapes, you can classify the shape of a flower in your mind, and that may help you to remember it better.
For starters, there are two main types of flower shapes; radially symmetrical and bilaterally symmetrical. (Nature is only very rarely asymmetrical).
Radially symmetrical flowers may be flattish/saucer-shaped, cup-shaped, urn-shaped, trumpet-shaped, funnel-shaped, inside-out, and also include the composite flowers of the Aster family (Asteraceae), such as the daisy. Noting whether a flower is simple or composite will help you narrow down the possibilities.
Bilaterally symmetrical flowers may be pea-like, two-lipped, hooded, etc. They may also be other, odd-ball shapes.
Not all flowers will fit exactly into one of these specific shapes, but many of them will.
The next important thing to notice about a wildflower that you are trying to identify is the leaves. What shape are they? How large are they? Are they hairy? How are they arranged on the plant? Some plants with similar flowers can be easily told apart by the leaves, so all of these things are important in making identifications, and are noted in the species profiles.
So once you find a species with flowers like the plant you are trying to identify, the next thing to do is compare the leaves. If the leaves are the same, then go on and compare other characteristics of the plant as outlined below. If the leaves are not the same then move on to another species.
Once you find a species that has flowers and leaves like those of the plant you are trying to identify, the next thing to do is double-check that the other plant characteristics also match. One of the most obvious of these being the plant’s stem and growth form. Whether the stem is branching, how tall the plant is, and whether the stem is hairy are some simple comparisons to make.
Another thing that is often important to note is the habitat in which a plant is growing. Sometimes similar species grow in different habitats, so this can be a good way to differentiate between them.
There are many different types of habitat, and there are many different things that come together to make up a given habitat. Some of these things include: other plants and wildlife, altitude, moisture, soil type, and human activities.
Some species are very habitat specific, while others grow in a wide variety of habitats. Some wildflowers are more closely tied to one habitat factor and more generalist in respect to the others.
Some of the most easily recognized habitats are:
- forest and woods
- open fields
Each of these can, of course, be further divided into more specific habitats. But it is not usually necessary to do so when trying to identify a wildflower. Just noting which one of these basic and obvious habitat types a plant is growing in will be sufficient in many cases.
One of the most obvious narrowing factors in the quest for a wildflower’s identity is the geographic range of species. If a species is not native to your area, or known to have become naturalized in your area, it is probably not the species to which your specimen belongs. So I recommend to start by selecting the chapter for species growing in your state.
Notes and Tips
Here are a few tips and notes about the guide:
The guide has a glossary which can easily be accessed from the navigation menu. Some of the less common words used in the profiles are linked to their definitions in the glossary, and you can view the definition without leaving the page by just hovering over word. These words are noted in the text by a dashed underline.
Throughout the guide, the metric system is used for giving measurements. I chose this for several reasons. The main reason is because it is much easier to talk in millimeters (~1/25 in) than it is to talk in terms of sixteenths or even thirty-seconds of an inch. But, for those of you who are not yet familiar with the metric system, don’t worry. You can see the measurements in inches/feet by hovering your mouse over the metric measurement. The converted measurements are of varying precision, depending on the size. The highest precision being to the nearest 1/16 inch.
The Species Profiles
At the top of each species profile is the wildflower’s common name, and underneath of that, its Latin name. There are no “official” common names for wildflowers, but the common names used in the guide are those used in the USDA PLANTS database. To see other common names, and Latin synonyms, click on “Synonyms”.
Also at the top of each page on the right is the species’ bloom period. This is the general bloom season for the species, and may vary considerably withing its range.
Underneath of these is the photo gallery for the species. There are usually four or more photos for each species, showing various characteristics, but especially the flowers.
Below the photo gallery is the written account for the species. The “Stem”, “Leaves”, “Flowers”, “Fruits”, and “Habitat” sections each give some details about those aspects of the plant. The “Comments” section contains some interesting anecdotes, and various notes about the species. The “Similar Species” section gives a bit of helpful information to distinguish the species from some of those most similar to it.
Before long, there will also be range maps, but right now that is still in the works.
To the Guide!
Well, now that you know a little about the guide, its time to check it out!