Plant Identification: Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

At the Herb Day at Four Quarter’s Interfaith Sanctuary this year I will be teaching a beginner’s Plant Identification class. We will be using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and so I wanted to briefly talk to you about this book and why it is a great one to start learning plant identification from. When you are ready you can purchase it here.

Firstly, compared to floras, a book that describes every single plant that grows in a region, Newcomb’s only contains flowering plants that you will find just about everywhere in the Northeast region of the US and Southeast Canada. This makes it great to learn to identify plants.

The book begins with describing all of the plant parts that you will need to know to identify a plant in the book, and nothing more. Some books can offer too much information for beginners and this book offers just what you need. Flowers, types of leaves, and other plant parts are all described simply in the beginning so you can go back and reference them. Leaves and flowers even have diagrams so you can start to understand the different parts of the plants.

Once you have started to know the terms for plants you can start to identify them. The first page of the book, before the title page offers a beginner classification based on flower parts. Flower parts are often found in the same number, such as 5 petals and 5 stamens in the rose family. This starts your identification. If you do not have a flower this same page gives you some options for starting with leaves that are basal, alternate, opposite, whorled, or no leaves as a simple starting point as well. This gives you a three digit number that you use to find a more detailed key to find your plant group.

For example, we will use the plant dandelion so you can go grab one outside when you get your book to practice and see if you are getting the same thing I got.

Flower Type

  1. Irregular flowers

  2. Flowers with 2 regular parts

  3. Flowers with 3 regular parts

  4. Flowers with 4 regular parts

  5. Flowers with 5 regular parts

  6. Flowers with 6 regular parts

  7. Flowers with 7 or more regular parts

  8. Flower parts indistinguishable

Plant type

  1. Wildflowers with no apparent leaves

  2. Wildflowers with basal leaves only

  3. Wildflowers with alternate leaves

  4. Wildflowers with opposite or whorled leaves

  5. Shrubs

  6. Vines

Leaf Type

  1. No apparent leaves

  2. Leaves entire

  3. Leaves toothed or lobed

  4. Leaves divided

Dandelion has more than 7 flower parts (#7), it has basal only leaves (#2), and the leaves are toothed (#3), giving us the number 723. Going to the key labeled 723 you see the following:

723-724 Leaves toothed, lobed or divided

                Yellow flowers

                                Leaves 2 or more times longer than wide

                                Leaves about as wide as long

                White, pink or blue flowers 

This gives us four options under #723 with two choices first, flower color. I think we all know that dandelion has yellow flowers. Under the yellow flowers we then have two more choices to pick from. Dandelion leaves are much longer than they are wide. In my book copy it says there to go to page 362. Your copy may be different.

On this page the title is Dandelions! Congrats we made it to the dandelion page. There is a page with drawings of different species of dandelions and a page describing the different ones. By reading the descriptions you can determine which dandelion you are looking at with help from the pictures.

In the comments below, let’s try a few more. Post a photo or description of a plant and we can work together to try different plants with this book. Other books are much more complicated to find your plant but they will also be much more accurate. If you live in Pennsylvania or near to it, one of the best floras on the east coast is ‘Plants of Pennsylvania’ if you want to delve into more depth of plant identification with keys. If you want to learn more about plants and their botany with the identification a great book to try is ‘Botany in a Day’ by Thomas J. Elpel.

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide is a great starter book for learning plant identification. It is simple and easy to find what you are looking for. It does not have every plant but it has most of the plants you will come across as a beginner and I hope you will take the time to purchase this book and begin to practice plant identification.

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