Wild plant identification

by Caroline Brown

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!


6 Comments to “Wild plant identification”

  1. I think I’d quite like the Newcomb book once I got the hang of the identification system. I have the Peterson’s Field Guide though I rarely have it with me when I really need it!

  2. This sounds like a really great companion to a long walk through the country on a lazy summer day. I will probably buy this as a gift for parents.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Thanks for the tip to the book. I’ll be looking for it.

    There’s an online guide that uses a set of questions to build information for a key too, and I’ve used it more than once to find things that weren’t in “Weeds of the Northeast” (another good guide to wildflowers).

    Site is just called Wildflower Identification:


    The thing I found hardest is I am not very good at accurately remembering whether leaves are alternate or opposite, measurement of flowers, whether they have more than five petals, etc.

    I always have to bring a sample home before I can accurately identify something.

    It’s a skill that requires practice!

  4. Kate, Daylily, & others– PLEASE NOTE: I just realized that I didn’t mention that Newcomb’s Guide covers a limited geographical area, mostly in Eastern North America: in Canada–the lower halves of Ontario & Quebec, plus New Brunswick, PEI, & Nova Scotia; in the US — all New England states, New York, Penn., Maryland, NJ, Del., Virginia, W. Va., Tennesee, northern half of NC, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan & Wisconsin.

    Firefly–Thanks for the tip, that website is GREAT. I have the same problem, I come home from a hike with pockets full of weeds but this could have unintended consequences. When I took the class, we were supposed to bring in a couple of wildflowers or weeds to practice with. I yanked up a weed on my way out the door. At my table, we pooled all our weeds and set to work identifying them as a group. Turns out that I brought ragweed–no wonder everyone’s allergies were acting up! Maybe I’ll start taking my digital camera out in the field along with my field guide.

  5. Thanks for the tip on this book. It will certainly come in handy on the many hiking trails Ontario, Canada has to offer.

  6. what is tiangular and thin and barbed? is it a mile-a-minute weed?

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