Workshop 2: Definitions and plant parts   Workshop 3: Keys   Workshop 4: Keys   
Workshop 5: Weber Arnica key
   Workshop 6: Keys and species

Introduction to Plant Identification  

The following pages outline a class on "Plant Identification". If you would like this material presented to a group, email A
l Schneider.

Please Note:  All photographs and all written material in this "Introduction to Wildflower Identification" and on this entire website are copyright by the authors and none of the material can be reproduced in any form without the expressed consent of the authors.   For permission email Al.

Outline for Workshop

Tools of the Trade
The Naming of Plants
Plant Parts and Characteristics of Plant Families
The Use of Plant Keys
Hands-on Examination of Specimens Throughout the Workshop and/or
Keying Plants on a Field Trip

Tools of the trade
Our ability to identify and appreciate plants 
depends on our personal interests and on our use of botanical tools. 

1) The Person

Some people are satisfied with admiring the beauty of a plant; names are unimportant to them.  
Some people admire the beauty but also want names; 
some of these people are content with common names that they hear or make up, 
some want to identify plants to the family level, some to the genus, some to the species.

Whatever level we are at, curiosity, perseverance, an unhurried pace, a discerning eye, 
and a good dose of caution, humility, and self-doubt are requisites for learning about plants.

We hope this workshop gives you some new tools to use 
in appreciating and identifying plants.  

2) The Helpers

Take wildflower walks with someone who knows more about plants. 

3) The Books
Over and over again, browse through field guides at home.

Four Corners states botanical books

William  Weber. Colorado Flora, Western Slope  &   Colorado Flora, Eastern Slope.
Ken Heil and Steve O'Kane. The Flora of the Four Corners.
Sue Komarek.  Flora of the San Juans.
Jennifer Ackerfield. Flora of Colorado.
H. D. Harrington. Manual of the Plants of Colorado. 1964.
Janis Huggins.  Wild at Heart. Award winning excellent natural history of Colorado mountain flora & fauna.
G. K. Guennel.  Colorado Wildflowers, 2 volumes. No key, has photos and paintings.
Jack Carter.  Shrubs and Trees of Colorado.  Excellent key, photos, and drawings.

New Mexico
Allred & Ivey.  Flora Neomexicana III.
Martin and Hutchins. A Flora of New Mexico. 1981.
Jack Carter.  Shrubs and Trees of New Mexico. Excellent key, photos, and drawings.

Springer et al.  Field Guide to Forest & Mountain Plants of N. Arizona.
Kearney and Peebles. Arizona Flora. 1960.

Stanley Welsh. A Utah Flora.

Regional botanical books
Cronquist et al.  Intermountain Flora (The best flora for much of the West.)
Flora of North America  (The best flora of the U.S. and Canada.  Keys available free on-line.)
Ricketts.  Wild Flowers of the United States. (3 volumes cover our area.)
Keys and photographs.
Niehaus.  Southwestern and Texas Wildflowers.  Key and drawings.
Warren.  Wild About Wildflowers
Robertson.  Southern Rocky Mountain Wildflower.
Craighead.  Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers.
Wingate.  Rocky Mountain Flower Finder
Wingate and Yeatts.  Alpine Flower Finder.
Fagan.  Canyon Country Wildflowers.

Excellent Reference Books

Drawings and definitions:  Harris.  Plant Identification Terminology.
Meaning of plant names:  Borror.  Dictionary of Word Roots.

4) Web sites

Four Corners Wildflowers 
(Specific for the flora of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah within 150 miles of the Four Corners.
Many plants shown are also found throughout the Rockies and the West. 
5,000 photos of 1,000 species, plant descriptions, a special characteristics key as well as color key,
common and scientific names, biographies, bibliography, glossary, meaning of scientific names, links, etc.)

Biota of North America Program

This site provides me with all of the plant distribution records on my web site.
BONAP gives county by county records of all plants found in the United States and Canada. 
You can search and list plants for any area by family, genus, species, or common name.  
Over 150,000 photographs. Keys. Maps.
Superb for amateurs and professionals.
Over forty years in the making.
Forest Images 
Google Images
(You will find some misidentified images on Google Images.)
USDA Plants Database

For more web sites see the links section of Four Corners Wildflowers 

More Tools of the trade

5) Notebook and pen 
6) Hand lens
Recommended: 10x by Bausch & Lomb or Belomo or Fire Mountain Gems
7) Collecting bags 
8) Camera 



What is the purpose of identifying plants and 
what do we mean by "identify"?

What's in a name?  That which we call a rose 
By any other name would smell as sweet.

As if to name a thing were to know it.

"I am the very model of a modern Major General
I 'm very good at integral and differential calculus
I know the scientific name of all the flora-alculus."
Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance

"The naming of cats is a difficult matter ... 
A cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES...."
T. S. Eliot

Without names, no knowledge.


 Names: Common and Scientific
Click for more information about common and scientific plant names.

Common names originate with anyone.  They sometimes are very descriptive, sometimes whimsical, sometimes a translation/rearrangement of the scientific name  (Phacelia sericea = Silky Phacelia; Penstemon whipplei = Whipple's Penstemon).  They are easy to pronounce and comfortable to use.  There are few, if any, records about who gave the common name, when, or why  --  or, most importantly, exactly which plant the name identifies.  Common names vary from country to country, state to state, and even within small areas.

Scientific names originate with a botanist  --  amateur or professional.  The names may be descriptive or they may honor a person or place.  To be accepted as a valid name, they must be published with a full plant description and a dried specimen must be placed on file with details about its location, time and date of collection, etc.  If another person later believes the name to be incorrect, they publish what they think should be the new name and internationally accepted botanical standards determines which name is correct.  Many plants have had several scientific names given to them.  One name is presently accepted; the others are called "synonyms".

The original plant that was described and named is called the "type specimen".  It is preserved in an herbarium and plants thought to be the same must be compared with this type.

Scientific plant names change for a number of reasons:
1) The name given was already in use.
2) Another name had already been assigned to the plant.
3) The genus name assigned was too encompassing: Gilia is an example of a very large genus that has been broken into a number of smaller genera.
4) New techniques (better microscopes, DNA) provide sharper distinctions among species.
5) There is not agreement on what a species is. How much variation does there need to be between two plants before you call them distinct species?

Family as well as genus and species names can change.
By international agreement, "aceae" was decided on as a suffix for all family names. 
There are also a few grand-fathered names.

There have been and continue to be attempts to standardize scientific plant names.
Wikipedia: International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants 
The actual International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants: Melbourne Code, 2011.  
(More about the history of botanical nomenclature.)

Which names should we use?
Stay with one system: BONAP. 

Weber's nomenclature
1) Weber's plant names are, in a number of cases, controversial.  
Consult more widely accepted sources, such as, BONAP or the Flora of North America
to find the more widely accepted name. 
2) Weber makes up very few plant names.  
He often reverts to names given by botanists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 
3) Weber is a "splitter"; he believes in making species as distinct from one another as possible.  In a number of cases, Weber gives a plant a unique species name when other botanists lump this species with others.
4) Weber has a world-wide view of plants and accepts or rejects some plant names because they do not correspond to the names assigned in Europe/Asia.

Examining why one botanist places a plant in one family or genus and another disagrees, teaches us much about how the science of botany works.  
It is not really difficult to know several different names for the same plant.

Pronouncing and Understanding Scientific Names
Authority: William Stearns. Botanical Latin
Borror.  Dictionary of Word Roots

We can de-mystify scientific names and make ourselves much more comfortable using them if we learn about their pronunciation and meaning. 

The most important pronunciation suggestion: 
Relax and just say it.

I. Other basic points about pronunciation:

  A. Pronounce proper names as the name normally would be pronounced and then add the ending. 

Pursh ia
Nuttall iana 
Missouri ensis

  B. Keep word roots together:  Oe no thera,   not    Oe noth era        Hetero theca,  not  Heter oth eca    Oxy tro pis,  not  Ox ytro pis
  c. Pronounce vowels as:   ah  a  ee  oo  ue (as in "blue")
                          not as:   a  ee  ii   oo   uu                         

There are exceptions: Asteraceae: No one says Ah steer ah cee ee

  D. Pronounce all vowels, except for diphthongs. 
  E. Family names end in "aceae", pronounced either "a c ee"  or  "a c a".
  F. Almost all American botanists pronounce the ii ending as  e i. For example, Kingii is pronounced King e i.  Most botanists from other countries pronounce Kingii as King e  or  King e e.  I greatly prefer King e.

II. Learn about the meaning of the plant names.

  A. Become familiar with the people who named plants and for whom plants were named and you will make the plant name meaningful and the plant memorable.  You will also be fascinated with the lives these folks led as politicians, climbers, adventurers, and teachers.

Fremont, Fendler, Engelmann, Parry, Nuttall,
Eastwood, Torrey, Gray, Brandegee, Hayden, James, Palmer, Porter

Sources for biographies of botanists and explorers: 
Four Corners Wildflowers
 Weber's  Colorado Flora
Welsh's  A Utah Flora (Good source for full name of authors of plant names and descriptions.)

  B. Learn some basic Latin and Greek word meanings and formations: 

-aceae: group, family
alpina: of the alpine
angustifolia: narrow leaves
arvensis: of the field
capitate: head-like
ciliata: with small hairs (usually along the margins)
glabrous: smooth
gracilis: slender
glaucous: with a white/blue-gray coating
grandiflora: large flower
incana (canescent): gray (usually from hairiness)
laciniate: cut into narrow, irregular lobes or segments
laevigate: lustrous, shining
languginous: downy or woolly
latiflora: wide flowers
latifolia: wide leaves
lentiginous: scurfy, covered with small scales
montanum: of the mountains
officinale: official, as in, accepted as medicine
-oides = similar to, as in Populus deltoides, Chaenactis stevioides, Chaetopappa ericoides
parviflorum: small flowered
phila: loving
pumila: dwarfed, small
rami: pertaining to branches (ramos + issimus: very branched)
scaposum: no leaves on the stem (the scape)
scopulorum: rocky places
speciosus: showy
umbellatum: umbrella shaped
vulgaris: common 

Click for a very good list of more basic botanical Latin words
(and an excellent introduction to plant parts and nomenclature).

Also see:
Dictionary of Botanical Epithets 
Botanical Latin Pronunciation Guide

Diminutives (small, smaller, smallest)
-lus, -la, -lum (ramulus: small branch, branchlet)
These suffixes may appear as:
-olus, -ola, -olum
-ellus, -ella, -ellum,
-illus, -illa, -illum
-culus, -cula, -culum
-cellus, -cella, -cellum
-cillus, -cilla, -cillum
Gentianella, Campanula, Ranunculus, Mitella

Comparatives (bigger, longer)
-ior, -ius (longior and longius)

Superlatives (biggest, longest)
-issimus, -issima, -issimum (longissimus)

   C.  Sources for scientific name meanings

Four Corners Wildflowers 
Stearns.  Stearn's Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners
Borror.  Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms 
Weber. Colorado Flora


   D.  Writing scientific names.

The name of a species is made up of two parts, the genus name, which is capitalized, and the specific epithet (often incorrectly called the "species"), which is not capitalized.  Both are italicized.
Senecio serra 
The genus is "Senecio" but the name of the species is not "serra".  The name of the species is "Senecio serra".  "Serra" is called the specific epithet or the specific name.

   E.  Writing common names.

  Common names are often capitalized in various ways: 
EASTERN COTTONWOOD, Eastern cottonwood, eastern cottonwood;
SCARLET GILIA, Scarlet gilia, scarlet Gilia, scarlet gilia;

I capitalize both words since they are proper nouns:
Eastern Cottonwood
Scarlet Gilia


Workshop 2: Definitions and plant parts  Workshop 3: Keys   Workshop 4: Keys   
Workshop 5: Weber Arnica key
   Workshop 6: Keys and species