A Sort-of Easy Approach to Identifying Flowers

Marsh marigold

Marsh marigold

Marsh marigolds are blooming in the soggy bottomlands along the Baraboo River. I was on the 400 Trail in southern Juneau County this morning, looking for birds, but I kept finding wildflowers, too. The sky threatened rain, but nobody seemed to care. American redstarts sang in the trees, a pair of wrens chattered in the brush, and in the distance a pair of sandhill cranes gave a unison call.

I paused to photograph a chokecherry in bloom. At least, I thought it was a chokecherry. Because my purpose was birdwatching, I had a bird book, but no wildflower guide in my pack. Ideally, I’d prepare for any potential encounter by packing not only my bird book and wildflower guide, but also a field guide to trees, one for reptiles and amphibians, and of course one for butterflies. But it’s hard to exult at birdsong when you’re staggering under a load of books (plus binoculars, plus a camera). So I’m frequently unprepared.

Yes, it's a chokecherry.

Yes, it’s a chokecherry.

Sometimes I do carry a wildflower guide and set out specifically to go “botanizing.” More often, I must look up my botanical discoveries when I get home. It’s nearly impossible, though, to memorize the details of a plant and – hours later – match it to one of a dozen or more similar species on a website or in a book.

Uprooting a specimen and taking it home from public land is not an option, but if you carry your phone in the field, you may like to try a website for on-the-spot plant identification. I prefer to gather the information I need and sort things out at home, and can recommend two methods of doing so.

The easier and quicker approach is to take a picture, but not just of the inflorescence. Get a photo that shows the shape of the leaves and their position on the stem (Are they opposite each other, or do they alternate? Do they change in size as they ascend the stem?). Look for basal leaves – those that grow near the stem’s base. And watch out for the leaves of neighboring plants, which might horn in on the photo and confuse matters.

The hepatica's leaves are the large purplish ones, not the green ones.

The hepatica’s leaves are the large purplish ones, not the green ones.

In addition to the photos, I jot down a few things in my field notes: approximate size of the blossoms and leaves; whether the leaves and stem are fuzzy or smooth, the plant’s height.

…All of which makes a photo only slightly quicker than the method I prefer, which is to draw the entire plant in my field notes. I’m no artist, and the drawings sometimes look ridiculous, but they capture everything I need to remember. And just as importantly, the act of sketching requires me to attend more closely to the plant and its characteristics.

My sketch of a Spring Beauty

My sketch of a Spring Beauty

Looking closely, touching the plant, estimating measurements, I consider how its traits differ from those of its neighbors, or how they resemble members of the same family. And the next time I encounter this species, having learned its name and its family ties, I might come to see it as a familiar friend.