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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.
Using botanical keys can be quite a daunting intellectual task, because they contain many technical botanical terms and require a good deal of time to master. You might find it easier to learn to identify plants by using a number of books and then checking your results in a technical key.
Years ago my search for a bit less technical approach led me to 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 technical keys (William Weber's Colorado Flora), but each has its own simplified 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 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, Flora of the Four Corners Region, and the Flora of North America.
The 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 may be correct about the family, maybe even the genus, but you will often not have the correct species: you will not really know what species you are looking at.
Using common names: 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 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:
Stanley Welsh's excellent A Utah Flora. Welsh's book is a heavy hard back publication that contains not only plant keys but also invaluable complete descriptions. These complete descriptions give you the measurements and characteristics of all the parts of a plant and thus allow you to be even more certain of having a correct identification of a plant than just the key. One keys a plant first and then checks the minute details in the complete descriptions.
Weber and Wittman's Colorado Flora (Western and Eastern slope volumes) is a paperback field guide that fits into cargo pants 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.
The superb 8 volume Intermountain Flora 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 III by Kelly Allred is a superb key with many excellent drawings by DeWitt Ivey. It focuses just on the flora of New Mexico.
Flora of the Four Corners Region is a complete guide to the plants of all the lands that drain into the San Juan River (much of the area covered in this web site), from the Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass to the semi-desert at Lake Powell. Eleven years of field work and the assistance of over 60 botanists has produced a monumental botanical guide with keys, complete descriptions, gorgeous color illustrations, several hundred line drawings, and many excellent photographs. The years of field work on this botanical work uncovered 1,700 county records, 42 state records, and 17 new species. Weighing 4 pounds, this is not a book you tuck into your pocket, but it is one you will use constantly at home.
For Arizona, the most recent botanical key is the very good Field Guide to Forest and Mountain Plants of Northern Arizona. On-line guides to Arizona flora are being developed. See Canotia.
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.
Tools of the trade:
Hand lens: 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 sometimes could not make a correct species identification because I could not see the necessary detail. I bought a cheap hand lens that allowed me to see a whole new world of detail. Eventually I realized that although the cheap lens did assist me, it just did not allow me to see and appreciate enough details. I then bought a Bausch & Lomb 10 power Hastings Triplet hand lens and a whole new world was opened for me. The detail revealed by such sharp lenses 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, or a cheap lens. I compare the view through a hand lens 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 now use an even better lens, the Belomo 10x triplet made in Belarus.
Microscope: 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.
Other very valuable tools for identifying flowers:
1) Carry a notebook and pen for making field notes and writing down your
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: 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. (See #2 below for more details about how to use a botanical key.)
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.
Enjoying the beauty of plants and observing their characteristics is a great pleasure. The more we observe, the more we understand and enjoy. Step by step we get into the complexities. Certainly one of the complexities is precise identification of the species, but this identification can only be achieved by mastering the use of detailed botanical keys. I find that there are two very helpful, enjoyable, and relatively painless ways of learning to use botanical keys:
1) Go on field trips with your local native plant society. Watch, listen, and ask questions. Never be shy. Never be intimidated. You will always find very sharing and gracious folks willing to assist you.
2) On your own, select a plant whose species identity you are positive about, for instance, Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion). Find that plant in the botanical key you own and then work backwards through the key to see how the key arrived at Taraxacum officinale. Be sure you understand all the steps and all the terms.
As mentioned above, an unhurried pace, a discerning eye, a number of good field guides, and a huge dose of self-doubt are necessary for identifying plants. If you want to identify the exact species, you will need to use botanical keys developed over the centuries by devoted botanists who gave thousands of hours of their time to distinguishing one species from another.
Most of us enjoy the beauty of flowers; few of us have the interest or patience necessary for keying. If you would like to try your brain at it, here are some detailed suggestions. (Also see Plant Names, especially the section on scientific names.)
First and foremost, don't expect to move easily through the keys and quickly identify the plant in question. As is true of most worthy endeavors, there is much to learn and many wrong turns along the way -- and great rewards.
Not all keys are created equal. Some botanical keys are easier to follow than others, so when you get stuck in one book, turn to another for assistance. Use a glossary. In the Four Corners states we are fortunate in having a number of botanical keys to examine. We can see that there are not only differences in the ease of using keys in various books, but also that there are differences in the accuracy of the descriptions of the plants. Botanists who write keys have as their goal giving us, in the most succinct manner, morphological characteristics that separate one plant from another. Some botanists are much better at this than others. Writing the keys requires the utmost attentions to detail and the ability to state the details in the most precise language.
We should understand several points about technical botanical keys:
There are many kinds of botanical books. In the following discussion, which elaborates on some of the subjects discussed above, we are concerned, not with the wildflower books that have color photographs and are almost always arranged by flower color. Instead, we will be discussing the complexities of two kinds of detailed botanical texts that allow you to precisely identify a species:
1) The complete description flora is a large format book that gives detailed keys that allow you to identify all plants of the region and it gives an alphabetical listing and complete description of each family, genus, and species.
2) The field guide is often in a pocket-sized format and contains only keys that allow you to identify all plants of the region. There are usually very brief family and genus descriptions and only enough species details to allow you to distinguish between species.
Rarely does either type of botanical text have color photographs; occasionally they have line drawings.
As discussed above, in the Four Corners region we have both kinds of texts:
A Utah Flora is large format with keys, complete descriptions, no photos, no line drawings.
Colorado Flora: Western Slope is pocket-sized with keys only, no photos, some line drawings.
Flora Neomexicana III is available in large and pocket-sized format with keys only, no photos, numerous line drawings in the large format, none in the pocket-sized format.
Flora of the Four Corners Region is large format with keys, complete descriptions, photos, and line drawings.
How is a botanical key made and who makes them?
The best botanical keys are made by experienced botanists with extensive field observations of the species plus extensive study of dried specimens from various herbaria. To develop the key, the botanist tries to determine the main characteristics that separate one family from another, one genus from another, and one species from another. The details that separate these must then be phrased in a succinct and accurate manner, and the phrasing and the order in which the characteristics are expressed needs to be the same for each species being compared.
No botanist is an expert in all plant families, so when a complete flora of an area is made, the main author enlists other experts to write keys for some families.
Superb keys are freely handed down from one botanist to another.
Keys assume several things:
1) Keys assume that we are looking at a plant at the height of its development, say mid-July. If we see this same plant in late August there will be, of course, observable differences. For instance, in July the plant may have been quite hairy, but since hairs commonly thin out or disappear as plants mature, the plant in August may not have hairs.
2) Keys assume that we use a 10x hand lens to observe minute characteristics, for instance, not just that a plant has hairs, but what shape the hairs have, how thick they are, how they are oriented, etc.
3) Keys assume that we are familiar with botanical terminology. To assist us, the books give us a glossary of all the terms the authors uses. In addition, I find invaluable an illustrated glossary, such as the excellent Plant Identification Terminology by Harris and Harris. But be sure to use the glossary in the keying book you are using because the writer sometimes has a slightly (or significantly) different definition of a term.
How is a key structured?
Almost all professional keys are dichotomous (from the Greek, "cut in two parts"), i.e., the key presents us with a series of questions in two parts:
1a. Plants short ...2
The "2" at the end of 1a. tells us that if we have a short plant, our next step in the treasure hunt is to go to the choices listed in 2 and that will lead us to 3, 4, 5, and 6, all of which deal with short plants.
All the choices from 7 onward deal with tall plants.
Choice 2 might indicate:
I hope you asked, "What the heck does the key mean by "short" and "tall". Sometimes such vague words are good enough to separate species, but far too often they are not, and the keys fail us by not providing precise measurements:
1a. Plants 3-14 cm
Now I hope you asked, "What if the plant I am trying to identify is 12 cm? It could be 1a. or 1b." Yes, that can be a sticking point, but a good key would have given you more details:
1a. Plants 3-14 cm, flowers in terminal clusters, alpine
Following are some basic points about how to key plants:
1) Read through all introductory material at the beginning of the book and at the beginning of each key. Keys begin with information about the family and some of that information is vital to keying but not repeated in the genus information. Also, you need to read all the information given in the genus description since that information is not always repeated for each species within that genus. These points are especially true if you are reading the complete description of each species. Some details about that species are given in the genus description and some are given in the family description and not repeated in the species description.
Read through the entire a. b. choices. Note, by the way, that choices may be written in a number of different ways:
2) Each choice gives characteristics in order of importance. So in the example several paragraphs above, the height of the plants is the most important characteristic. How much more important each characteristic is than the one after it, is never exactly clear.
3) Note that the entries under 1a., 1b., 5a., 5b., etc. do not give us complete descriptions of a plant; they only only give us what the author thinks is sufficient detail for distinguishing between plants (or groups of plants).
If your book does not give complete descriptions of plants but only gives the steps, 1a., 5b., etc., you can still compile a list of basic descriptive details about the plant by writing down all the details given in the steps that led you to the correct ID. For instance, if your plant was found at step 26a. write down the details given there and then work backwards to 20b., 14a., 4b., and 1a. You can see how valuable numbers listed in  are when you try to work backwards. See 5) below for an explanation of .
4) When using a key, you may find yourself confused because of the author's word choice. We tend to blame ourselves when we cannot figure things out, so I have the discussion below to let you know that in a number of cases your confusion is not of your own making. It is the fault of the key.
The dichotomous key should be expressed in very carefully chosen words in parallel form:
1a. Plants 3-14 cm, flowers in terminal clusters, alpine
1a. Plants 3-14 cm, flowers in terminal clusters, alpine
This lack of parallelism causes much confusion and is here, and far too often, compounded by poor word choice. Following are two examples from the key for Lupinus in Colorado Flora: Western Slope 4th edition:
4a.  Dwarf, forming low, spreading clumps; the inflorescence shorter than the leaves. Lupinus lepidus
4a. and 4b. are expressed in fairly parallel structure: dwarf vs. tall; spreading vs. erect; and inflorescence shorter than vs. inflorescence exceeding the leaves.
Could the parallelism be better, i.e., could the choices be more clearly expressed? Yes. Compare the following with the previous. Do you feel the difference in the clarity?
4a.  Dwarf,
spreading; inflorescence included within the leaves. Lupinus lepidus
"Inflorescence shorter [or taller] than the leaves" could be interpreted in several ways: it could mean that if we measure the length of the inflorescence (say, 4 cm) we will find that the leaves are longer than 4 cm. Or it could mean that the inflorescence is so short that there are leaves above it, i.e., the inflorescence is surpassed by the leaves. The latter is what the author meant to say.
Let's examine the next step in the same Colorado Flora: Western Slope key for Lupinus:
5a. Banners reflexing at or near the midpoint, leaving a relatively wide gap above the wings; longest petioles near the base, the upper ones often much reduced....(6)
5b. Banners reflexing above the midpoint, and the ventral groove clasping enough of the wings so the tip of the banner leaves a small opening between the wing tip and the banner tip; leaves mostly short-petioled, occasionally somewhat longer below...(12)
5a. Banner reflexed at or near its midpoint; leaf petioles longest near base of plant, upper petioles often much reduced.....(6)
5b. Banner reflexed above its midpoint; leaf petioles occasionally slightly longer near base of plant, almost all leaves short-petioled...(12)
Notice the simple but really clarifying change from "the midpoint" to "its midpoint" and the removal of the information about a "gap" and "ventral groove" both of which are completely clear and accurate -- once you know what they mean!! but are nothing but fog the first 30 times you read the words.
Several keys by other botanists add measurements to make the above description more accurate and more clearly stated:
5a. Banner reflexed at or near its midpoint, approx. 3-6 mm from banner tip....
5b. Banner reflexed above its midpoint, approx. 3 mm or less from banner tip....
We can even shorten this:
5a. Banner reflexed approx. 3-6 mm from its tip....
5b. Banner reflexed approx. 3 mm or less from its tip....
Wow. That is so much better, clearer, more accurate. Yes, we still could have problems with understanding the choices: What is a banner? What is the meaning of reflexed (or recurved, the word several keys use)? What is a mm? The burden of knowing these points is completely ours to bear. Use the glossary.
I must add one more very important point here: the keys do not even agree with each other on the description of the banner reflex -- or on whether you even need to look at the reflex in order to key the genus. One key indicates "reflexed at or near the midpoint" but two other keys indicate "at or below the midpoint". One key indicates "3.5-6 mm below the apex"; another indicates 3-6 mm below the apex". And the Flora Neomexicana III and the Jepson Manual do not key Lupine on the basis of the reflex of the banner but instead on the basis of the calyx shape and hairiness of the various species.
Plants are not easily categorized into 1a. 1b, 2a 2b. They are highly variable, often overlapping in their characteristics. It is, therefore, a very good practice to use several keys.
I hope it is clear that we are discussing mistakes in botanical keys for one major reason: so that you don't feel that it is always your fault that you cannot understand the key. A great deal of time and care goes into the construction of botanical keys and most of the time these keys are accurate. But in some instances, the problems we have are in the key, not in us. We do need to learn the botanical vocabulary, and we do need to develop the skill of keying, but those who write keys need to rework their keys to produce the utmost clarity.
Let's continue with other points about keying.
5) In 4a. above, what does the  mean? This is a very handy and thoughtful inclusion in keys. Unfortunately few keys use it. The  tells us how we got to 4. We were on 1 and made a choice that took us to 4. Why is this so nice to have? Because it very commonly happens that you follow your choices to a dead end. Perhaps you arrive at 4 and the choices you are left with are both wrong for the plant you are trying to identify. Where did you make a mistake prior to 4? How did you get to 4? The [ ] tells you where to backup to in order to check your previous choices.
The  is also very nice to have because it allows you to work backwards through a key to assemble a list of characteristics for the species you identified. It also allows you, once you have identified your mystery plant, to retrace your keying steps to reinforce your knowledge of keying and to learn about the characteristics of other members of the genus.
6) It is important to consult the glossary of the key you are using; the meaning of some terms varies from author to author. In addition, as mentioned above, it is so important to have an illustrated glossary, such as my favorite, Plant Identification Terminology by Harris and Harris.
Botanical terms may be confusing, difficult to understand, or subject to several interpretations.
A) Annual, biennial, and perennial.
Early in the keys in a number of families and genera you will be asked if the plant you are trying to identify is an annual, biennial, or perennial:
1a. Annual or biennial..........2
Perhaps we can give a quick definition of annual, biennial, and perennial, but how does one determine, in the field, whether a plant is annual, biennial, or perennial?
Since there are no quick and easy fool-proof answers to separating the three, it is common to have to choose both 1a. and then 1b. and work through both sides of the key to see which leads you to the plant you are identifying. You will then know whether your plant is an annual, biennial, or perennial and you can look at its characteristics to see why it fit the annual or perennial side of the key. In this manner, you gradually build your ability to distinguish annual, from biennial, from perennial.
Increasing the difficulty in distinguishing between annual, biennial, and perennial is that a plant's appearance changes during growth season; an annual in August may look much more like a perennial than it will in April.
Also, of course, biennial and perennial plants do have a first year of growth and they can then appear very similar to annuals.
Following are a few clues about determining whether a plant is annual, biennial, or perennial:
Overall appearance: Perennials and biennials may have last year's growth still visible. Check the plant closely for dried stems and seeds and the presence of multiple layers of basal leaves.
Life span: An annual sets in its roots, fully develops its stem and flowers, and goes to seed and then dies in one season, sometimes as short as a few weeks. A biennial produces leafy growth in its first year and then flowers and dies in its second year. Perennials live and produce flowers and fruits for three or more years. Remember that these distinctions can blur; weather, genetics, etc. might cause an annual to live for several years or a perennial might die in just two years. Also, it is relatively common to find spring blooming annuals produce seeds which sprout and flower the same fall or early winter when temperature and moisture conditions are just right for it.
Roots: I do not like digging up a plant to look at its roots, but roots are one significant key to separating annual from perennial. You can get a peak at the roots without killing the plant by scrapping some dirt off the top and sides of the roots.
Generally speaking, annuals have far less developed root systems than perennials. Annual roots are fibrous (thin and branched repeatedly). Often I find that annual roots are soft, flexible, light colored, and not at all woody. The outer surface in contact with the soil is smooth and not shredded or bark-like.
Perennials have a much more robust root system with much thicker roots and the branches are also much thicker. The roots are stiff, dark, and commonly woody at the top. The outer surface in contact with the soil is rough, shredded, and bark-like.
Cotyledons: If you get to the plants early enough in the season, you might distinguish between annual and perennial by the presence (annual) or absence (perennial after the first year) of cotyledons.
Base of stems: At ground level an annual stem will look very much like the root just below ground level and very much like the stem just above ground level. They are all soft, flexible, thin, herbaceous.
There often is a clear distinction in these three zones for biennials and especially for perennials with a stiff, woody consistency to the main plant stem at ground level.
Stems: Generally speaking, annuals are shorter, more delicate, and have fewer stems than biennials and perennials. If an annual has multiple stems, these are usually very thin and flexible. There are annuals in our area that do, however, grow thick stems 3-6 feet tall in their one season.
B) Flower color
I find that keys ask about flower color far too infrequently. Much more color information should be included.
Color is omitted for a number of reasons, one not so reasonable: I am convinced that some professional botanists think it is below them, non-scientific, childish, plebeian to discuss color.
However there are a number of good reasons for not basing keys on color:
C) Basal leaves
There are a number of terms used to describe the density of a plant's leaves at ground level. Some of the terms are used interchangeably; some are used in contrast to one another. They can be confusing.
Following are some of the basics for taking good plant photographs:
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.
5) 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.
6) 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
7) 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.
Bibliography of Botanical Texts for the Southwest
Click for "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.
Published in 2013: Flora of the Four Corners Region by Heil and O'Kane. Keys and descriptions of plants of the Four Corners region, from the alpine above Wolf Creek Pass to the semi-desert at Lake Powell. Click for more information.
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.) Detailed keys in a field guide packed with information, glossary, line-drawings, and 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 mostly 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. Out of print.
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:
Biota of North America Program
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:
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