A couple of weeks ago I took a short class on wild plant and flower identification using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. This is a book that I have always wanted to buy and learn how to use, but every time I looked at it in the store, I was always intimidated by how to use the key.
In other guides, flowers are often arranged according to color of blossom. Newcomb’s is different because it groups plants by family and you use a key to identify the flower. First you classify the flower according to its numbers of parts (petals, basically.) This is harder than it seems.
Then you classify the plant itself–is it a wildflower, shrub or vine? If it’s a wildflower, you have to describe the leaves–none, basal, whorled or opposite, or alternate. Finally, you describe the leaf type–entire margins (smooth margins), toothed or lobed margins, or divided leaves?
Based on your observations the plant is assigned a 3 digit number, and then you look that number up what’s called a locator key, which sends you to a page in the book. A drawing and description of your plant are probably located on that page somewhere. It sounds cryptic but it’s actually pretty intuitive once you get the hang of it. You can look at a plant and think, OK, it’s a violet wildflower with 8 parts and alternate entire leaves. It’s not foolproof because it’s easy to get confused about classifying the parts of the plant. But the book is set up to eventually lead you to the correct plant.
I bought the Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Wildflowers as a second reference to doublecheck my identifications. It has actual photos, and a lot more information about the plants, but it doesn’t contain as many species as Newcomb’s. Having a second reference allows me to look up the plant in the Audubon guide after I’ve tentatively identified it in Newcomb’s Guide. Another reference guide that a lot of people use for this purpose is Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers, but it has drawings, not photos.
If you’re into wild plants, I highly recommend the Newcomb’s Guide. It’s really helping me boost my knowledge about “what’s what.” Now that I have it, I’m forever finding plants that I want to identify, and I’m considering getting a bigger bag so I can carry it with me everywhere!