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Learning about plants
1) How to Identify Plants
1) How to identify plants: An unhurried pace, a discerning eye, a number of good field guides, and a huge dose of self-doubt are good starts toward identifying plants. Browsing through field guides at home and taking wildflower walks with someone who knows plants are further invaluable methods for learning about plants. Join your local native plant society, attend their workshops, and go on their field trips.
Click here for the outline of the "Introduction to Wildflower Identification" class that John Bregar and I teach.
To identify a plant with some degree of certainty one needs the plant in hand, a magnifying glass, a detailed field guide, and experience. I choose not to dig up plants or pick them but instead to identify them in the field. I use William Weber's Colorado Flora: Western Slope, but I was intimidated by this book for a while because it is a detailed, professional key with many technical botanical terms. So I searched for a bit less technical approach and found Susan Komarek's excellent Flora of the San Juans and G. K. Guennel's Colorado Wildflowers (2 volumes, second edition). Both of these books are based on Weber's book but each has its own approach: Komarek's book is a botanical key but technical botanical terms have been eliminated, and there are many line drawings and small color photos. Guennel's book contains his own lovely watercolors and good close-up photos for each species. Information is brief but good. Komarek's book is specifically on the flora of the San Juans; Guennel's is on the flora of Colorado. Both books also work well for the other Four Corners states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.
For a number of years I found myself using Komarek first, looking in Guennel to corroborate my identification through his descriptions and pictures, and then looking at Weber to see if my judgment was correct and to learn some botanical terms for what I was seeing. After a number of years, I became more familiar with botanical terminology and saw that any serious botanizing (i.e., precise identification) could only be done with Weber and comparable botanical texts such as Intermountain Flora, A Utah Flora, Flora Neomexicana, and the Flora of North America. This gradual process of getting serious suited me fine; it may work for you or you may want to take college botany classes and plunge in more quickly.
Perhaps you do not want to take the time to get to know plants this intimately. You may find that you are satisfied with knowing the family a plant is in or maybe the genus but not the species. Do what is comfortable for you. But don't limit yourself; just because scientific names seem complex and a burden to you now, it does not mean that they will be that way in the future. Keep yourself open to learning.
You certainly should always keep in mind that if you do not use a detailed professional botanical key and if you do not use scientific names, the chances are quite high that you will be identifying your plants in a very general manner, i.e., you will often not have the correct names for your plants.
As indicated elsewhere in this web site, common names for plants are not standardized: the same common name is often used for different plants, common names vary from person to person and place to place, many plants have no common name, and in almost all instances we do not know who gave the name, why or when they gave it, or exactly what plant they gave it to. You can use common names - even ones you make up - to help you remember a plant but that won't help you in discussing these plants with other people -- or learning from these people.
Scientific names, on the other hand, allow you to talk about a plant with anyone in the world because the names are the same world-wide. Scientific names are only accepted if they are attached to a specimen and named and described in a publication.
In short, common names may be easy to pronounce and remember but they are of almost no value in learning about plants or in discussing plants with other people. If you feel comfortable using common names, by all means, use them. But also try to learn the scientific name.
Let's get back to books for plants in the Four Corners area: I use Stanley Welsh's excellent A Utah Flora (the equivalent for Utah of Weber's Colorado Flora). Welsh's book is a heavy hard back publication that contains not only keys to plant identification but also complete descriptions. It has no photographs or drawings.
Weber's book is a paperback field guide that fits into cargo pockets. The guide contains detailed keys, but does not have complete descriptions although it does manage to squeeze in an amazing amount of information in a small volume. Weber's book also has many drawings.
At home I also use the superb 8 volume Intermountain Flora which gives botanical keys, detailed descriptions, and large drawings of all plants. Intermountain Flora is my favorite for the Four Corners states and all states between the Rockies and Sierras.
Flora Neomexicana by Kelly Allred is a superb key with many excellent drawings by DeWitt Ivey.
For Arizona, the most recent botanical key is the very good Field Guide to Forest and Mountain Plants of Northern Arizona.
The other superb volumes to look at are the productions of the Flora of North America. See their web site for details about this project which will produce dozens of volumes on all plants of North America. The Flora of North America plant descriptions and keys for identifying plants are on-line free.
As I indicated above, detailed botanical keys that allow you to determine the exact species often require that you look at small (and very beautiful) details of the plant. For years I used my unaided eyes to try to see (and appreciate) these details, but eventually I realized that I could not make a correct species identification because I could not see the necessary detail. I then bought a cheap hand lens and although this did aid greatly, it just did not allow me to see and appreciate enough details.
I eventually bought a Bausch & Lomb 10 power Hastings Triplet hand lens magnifier from Kooter's Geologic Supplies and a whole new world was opened for me. The detail revealed by this superbly sharp lens is just stunning. Even if you never use the lens for keying a plant and determining its exact identification, it is worth buying because it opens up a world of beauty that you cannot see with your unaided eye. I compare it to dropping below the surface of the water with snorkel gear and discovering a whole new world that was so close and so unseen. When I take wildflower walks, the hand lens is always around my neck on the beautifully beaded lanyard my wife made.
I should add that Kooter's searched the world for an even better magnifier than the Bausch & Lomb and came up with the Belomo 10x triplet made in Belarus. I own it and love it.
Of course there is always another level of magnification. My wife bought me a microscope and I can now swim even more deeply below the surface.
There are several other very
valuable tools for identifying flowers:
After a while one learns the shape and color of plants and their typical habitats and one can identify many plants from a distance, just as we can identify friends from a distance by their mannerisms, their posture, their walk. To get to this level of familiarity requires the desire to learn, then time and patience and study.
To determine the exact species, one often needs very particular characteristics. Sometime one needs to note a number of different characteristics through the growing season. Sometime one needs to see the flower and seed. Sometime one needs to see the root. Sometime you just won't find the details you need to make a precise identification. You may learn that your plant is a Rosaceae (Rose Family) and that's it. Perhaps you'll learn the genus but not the species. Maybe this will be frustrating, but for sure you will be building your botanical knowledge and enjoying the beauty of the plant world. And bit by bit your ability to identify will grow.
Getting precise about plants is accomplished by noting key plant characteristics. All detailed botanical texts with keys use such characteristics to lead you through a series of either-or questions in order to identify plants by a process of inclusion or elimination: Does the plant reproduce by spores or flowers? Is the plant woody or herbaceous? Is it a vine? Is it aquatic? Each time you answer a question you eliminate some plants and move on to consider others.
If you are in the field and do not have a detailed botanical key with you, take a number of pictures of different parts of the plant and then make notes about the plant's characteristics.
Pay special attention to:
There are many more factors to notice:
Date, geographic location, habitat,
and vegetation zone.
These details will seem overwhelming to some, but to others they bring the pleasure of learning about the incredible variety within the plant world and the pleasure of sharing this joy with friends.
Many states offer classes in wildflower identification. In Colorado, the Native Plant Master program is sponsored by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. The field-based courses are held on public lands and focus on plant identification with an emphasis on scientific names and families, ecology, landscaping, ethnobotany, and other human uses.
Feel free to email me anytime with your plant questions. If you need help in identifying a plant, send me some photos and details about the plant; I'll see if I can help. If you are coming to the Four Corners area, check the San Juan/Four Corners Native Plant Society web page for free botanical field trips. Also check the native plant society web sites for Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. (See my Links section). Field trips with these native plant societies are free and visitors are always welcomed.
Some of the keys to taking good plant photographs are:
Having a camera with a good quality lens
These and more points are discussed below.
The first thing I did with my digital camera was to learn to use the vast array of menu choices; I sat at my desk reading the manual and shooting hundreds of pictures as I read. I changed the menus and quick buttons to the settings I thought would be most useful to me; the camera manual tells how to do this. If you do not read and re-read your manual you will have wasted a good deal of your money and you will not be able to produce quality photos. You will be on "auto" all the time and will basically have a point and shoot camera.
There are some settings on my camera that I never use. I do not use saturation, sharpen, etc. I use Adobe Photoshop for these functions if they are necessary. (My most common uses of Photoshop for my wildflower photos are cropping, brightening the picture with "levels", and sharpening the picture with "smart sharpen".)
Once you understand the mechanics of your camera, you have many choices:
1) Decide what kind of plant photographs you want to take: Pretty flower pictures? Detailed identification pictures? Quick shots to remind yourself of good times and pretty places? Photos for printing? Photos for the web? The answer to these questions will determine many things you do with your camera. Certainly your answers will determine what resolution you shoot at. If you plan to make some really fine prints, you will want to shoot at the highest resolution possible in TIFF, RAW, or least compressed JPG. For my web photos I use the highest JPG resolution, i.e., the least compressed.
2) If you really want to show the plant for what it is, you almost always have to get down to its level -- on your belly or on your knees. You are going to get dusty, dirty, and muddy and you are going to get great photos.
3) If you are trying to use the photos for identification purposes, you need something in the photo for scale. A close-up shot of a tiny flower makes the flower look huge. That often won't help folks identify the plant.
4) If you really want to see the plant for what it is, you need a camera that can focus down to at least an inch or two (mine focuses to one centimeter) and one that gives you complete manual control.
Wind, super bright sunshine, and dark gray skies are realities of life. You need to be able to adjust your shutter speed and your shutter opening.
I almost always shoot on the manual setting and make adjustments for the above changes in nature. My camera (Panasonic FZ35) allows me to store these settings under "Custom settings" so I do not have to keep punching buttons in the Menu. I have one group of settings for close-ups of plant parts stored in Custom Setting One and another group of settings for backing off and seeing the entire plant stored in C2. C3 has settings that are best for landscape shots that show the entire habitat of a plant.
5) I almost never use the LCD monitor to view my photo subjects. Holding the camera out in front of you with your arms swaying, pretty well guarantees blurred pictures -- or at least photos not as sharp as those you will get holding the camera against your face with arms against your body. This position gives you great stability. You make yourself into a stable tripod.
Also, of course, sunlight striking the LCD makes it difficult or impossible to see your subject.
6) Be sure to SLOOOWLY SQUEEEEEEZE the shutter button. Punching it will also guarantee blur.
7) For close-up shots you will have to use your LCD monitor unless you have a camera that allows you to actually look through the lens with your view finder. My Panasonic FZ35, similar cameras, and SLRs allow viewing through the lens.
8) There are times when a zoom lens really helps. I do not like tromping through delicate plants just so I can get the shot I like. With a zoom, I can stand on the trail and get some pretty nice shots.
9) Setting up your digital camera
for each shot can be a real pain. There are, however, several frustration-saving alternatives:
10) When you look through the lens, look at everything in your field of view. Otherwise you will wind up with someone's foot, a distracting bright spot, an unwanted plant, etc. in the photo.
Be sure that your plant stands out against the background. Green plants against a green background don't show up. Look at the plant from all sides until you find the best background.
You may want to blur the background by opening your shutter wide and increasing your shutter speed.
11) Sometimes backing off your subject a bit gives you a better picture than being in as close as your camera will allow. You will get better depth of field.
12) Look at your plant from different angles. Which angle is best for the kind of picture you want?
13) When you want to focus on a small detail, you will often get the best results using "spot metering".
14) Study your downloaded photos. Your camera software imbeds all of your camera settings in each picture. Your computer camera software will tell you all of these settings.
14) The more you know about your plant, the better you will be able to photograph it. I come back to the same species many times over the years and I find that when I am really familiar with a plant, I get better photos.
Carry an extra set of batteries and an extra memory card.
"The height of wildflower season" shows us the broadest distribution of the greatest number of flowers. But many species of flowers will bloom and die before this height and many after it. Some of these flowers put on magnificent shows, sometimes carpeting huge areas with very few other flowers evident. You won't see this display if you come at the "height of the season".
Further, in order to find wildflowers during the height of the season (or at any other time) one needs to go to the right places -- and walk. Viewing wildflowers from a car is like praying to God while watching television. We still thankfully have some wilderness in the United States and it is in these areas that wildflowers thrive. When you see photographs of mountain meadows filled with wildflowers and surrounded by 14,000 foot peaks, you are almost always looking at the result of a hunt on foot. The mountains, deserts, and prairies in bloom are most appreciated by those who travel afoot.
Having said all this, what can
I tell you about where and when you should go looking for wildflowers?
I hope you enjoy your wildflower search and the joy that wildflower beauty brings.
4) Guided wildflower walks: An on-line search will lead you to many outfitters and guides who take folks on long, multi-day backcountry horse, hike, and bicycle trips. None of these, however, focus just on wildflowers. You will also find a number of multi-day wildflower photography trips. But the intent of these trips is to build your photography skills, not your wildflower identification skills.
Unfortunately, national parks in the Four Corners area have few or no ranger guided wildflower walks. This is the result of massive under-funding of our national parks and misguided priorities.
The San Juan/Four Corners Native Plant Society has several dozen field trips and many programs throughout the year. Visitors are welcomed. Check native plant societies in neighboring states for their field trips.
Redwood Llamas has guided trips and rent-a-llama trips through the wildflowers in the San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado.
From June 10 to August 18 the Colorado Trail Foundation has a number of workshops at its 10,600 foot high retreat west of Lake City, Colorado. One week workshops are offered in wildflower identification, painting, hiking, music, climbing. Click for details.
The Durango Seniors Outdoors offers many trips every week of the year and there are special summer wildflower trips.
The July Crested Butte, Colorado, wildflower festival offers many guided walks.
The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (just a few miles from Crested Butte) offers guided wildflower trips through the summer.
The Chihuahuan Desert Native Plants Conservation Initiative annually has guided wildflower trips every weekend of April in southern New Mexico.
5) Picking and collecting wildflowers: Should we pick wildflowers? Should we collect wildflowers? For many reasons, the answer is "No".
It is a tribute to the beauty and appeal of wildflowers that we want to hold them in our hands. We should remember, though, that a great part of what appeals to us is the beauty of the flower growing wild in its natural surroundings. Picking a flower and admiring the sheen of its yellow petals is comparable to killing a bird and admiring the iridescence of its feathers. Do we really need to destroy beauty just to own it for a few hours? Even the scientific collector does damage: populations of endangered flowers have been made more endangered or exterminated by collectors who felt they just had to own that species.
Here are some specific reasons for not picking or collecting plants or wildflowers:
A) Some of us pick/collect believing that the plant is so abundant that we are not doing any harm. We are rationalizing to justify our destruction:
1) The vast majority of us do not even know
the exact species of plant we pick, so we do not know if it is rare, endangered,
threatened, or abundant.
B) It is an incontrovertible fact that if we pick a flower or plant we are interfering with natural processes:
1) We have stopped the
plant from reproducing.
C) We are setting a very poor example for those, especially children, who see us picking.
D) We hold picked flowers in our hands for a few minutes or hours or keep pressed flowers for a few months or years. We all know about throwing out our seashell, rock, wildflower,... collections when we move or clean house. Unthinking, fleeting, self-gratification is the essence of collecting.
E) It is, as the above points make clear, unthinking and irresponsible to collect. It is also illegal. Collecting of anything in national parks and national forests is illegal -- for the very reasons given above.
What would the world be, once bereft
6) Wildflower web sites, hotlines, education, conferences, etc. (Hotlines are seasonal.)
USA On-line Wildflower Reports (Be
sure to explore
the entire excellent web site.) (760) 767-4684
Bibliography of Botanical Texts, Wildflower Books, and Apps
Some of the books listed below can be purchased from "Exotic Plant Books", a company
that donates a portion of purchases to our Native Plant Society.
A word of caution about commonly available wildflower books: Beautiful photographs, neatly printed pages, and nice layout do not a good book make! When you look at a wildflower book, carefully examine the photographs and information about a plant you are very familiar with to see how accurate the details are. I have looked at dozens of wildflower books and find most of them are at first glance very appealing. A careful reading of the text has repeatedly shown me numerous errors in the identification of plants and in information about the plant's characteristics, distribution, habitat, etc. Most publishers of such books have money, not accuracy, as their bottom line.
Examine the books I suggest below and you will see the enormous amount of time and care lavished on them by authors and publishers who are knowledgeable and have accuracy as their bottom line.
Colorado Rocky Mountain Wildflowers. Schneider. For phones and tablets, Apple and Android. Several thousand photos of 600 species from the foothills to the alpine zone. Free demo.
Alpine Flower Finder. Wingate and Yeats. Very nice pocket-sized book for beginners.
Alpine Wildflowers of the Rocky Mountains. Duft and Moseley.
*Botanical Latin. William Stearn. THE botanical Latin authority. Pronunciation, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc.
Cacti of the Southwest. W. Hubert Earle.
Canyon Country Wildflowers. Damian Fagan.
**Colorado Flora, Western Slope. William A. Weber and Ronald C. Wittmann. (4th edition, 2012.) THE authority for Colorado flora. Indispensable for anyone who wants to know exactly what plant they are looking at. Detailed keys in a field guide packed with information, glossary, line-drawings, historical and biographical material. The culmination of Weber's 70 years of Colorado botanizing.
*Dictionary of Plant Names. William Stearn.
**Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms. Donald Borror. Botanical Latin roots.
*Field Guide to Forest and Mountain Plants of Northern Arizona. Springer et al. An excellent book by dedicated field botanists. Many features found in no other books.
A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona. Epple and Epple. Very good photos and information.
Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers. (Peterson Field Guide) Craighead, Craighead, and Davis. An old standard loaded with a variety of information.
*Flora of North America. This vast, authoritative, 30 volume work in progress will eventually provide keys to and descriptions of over 20,000 North American species. See the Flora of North America web site.
**Flora of the San Juans. Susan Komarek. An excellent key to Four Corners mountain flora. Line drawings and photos.
*Flora Neomexicana II: Glossarium Nominum. Kelly Allred. Meaning of botanical plant names. Excellent.
*Flora Neomexicana III. Kelly Allred and DeWitt Ivey. 2012. An excellent key to NM montane and desert flora with Ivey's line drawings.
Flowering Plants of New Mexico. Robert DeWitt Ivey. Drawings of NM flora; now incorporated into Flora Neomexicana.
Flowers of the Southwest Mountains, Flowers of the Southwest Mesas, Flowers of the Southwest Deserts, Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands, Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Deserts. Published by the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association. Good introductory texts and drawings.
*Guide to Colorado Wildflowers, Volumes 1 and 2. Revised second edition. G. K. Guennel. Accurate and concise descriptions with water colors and photographs.
Handbook of Rocky Mountain Plants. Nelson. Revised by Roger L. Williams.
**Intermountain Flora. Cronquist et al., 8 volumes. The authority on intermountain flora (Sierras to Rockies). Detailed botanical keys, descriptions, line drawings, voluminous information. One of the world treasures of floral books.
*Manual of the Plants of Colorado. H. D. Harrington. Excellent. 60 years old, but still the only full descriptions of Colorado flora.
National Audubon Society Guide to Wildflowers, Western Region. Spellenberg.
Peterson Field Guide to Southwestern and Texas Wildflowers. Niehaus et al. Very good introductory book.
**Plant Identification Terminology. Harris and Harris. Indispensable.
Rocky Mountain Flower Finder. Wingate. Very nice pocket-sized book for beginners.
**Utah Flora. Stanley Welsh. Excellent. The authority on Utah flora. Excellent keys, descriptions, comments by the master of Utah flora.
Wild at Heart. Janis Huggins. Excellent, award winning, natural history book. Drawings, photos, authoritative text.
Web sites of
particular significance for Four Corners plant identification and appreciation:
Southwest Colorado Wildflowers, Ferns, and Trees
medicinal plant guides:
Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada. Karst, Kershaw, & Ow. (Includes many plants of western U.S.)
In a category
all its own:
Do you have questions about native plants? Would you like to share information about native plants? Join the Colorado and New Mexico Native Plants on-line botanical discussion groups for amateurs and professionals. Once you sign up you can participate as much or as little as you want to. Send in photographs of your mystery plants for identification, discuss key issues about conserving native plants, discuss growing native plants in your garden, learn about field trips, etc.
2) To subscribe to the very active New Mexico discussion group:
HOME PAGE SEARCH
BY PLANT NAME BLUE/PURPLE
FERNS PINK/RED/ORANGE FLOWERS TREES WHITE FLOWERS YELLOW FLOWERS CONTACT US