Mostly, I have found field guides to be frustrating for beginners. At least for this beginner. I bought my first wildflower guide at the recommendation of a biology professor many, many years ago – the Audubon one with photographs arranged by color and shape of flower. I had some success with it, and many of the photos are very nice. It did not, however, fuel me with confidence that I could identify any flower.
A few years back, I was introduced by a colleague to Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb, illustrated by Gordon Morrison. I love it. It has a very systematic way of leading you to the right page in the guide – increasing the likelihood that you will find your flower. All those years as a computer programmer, drawing flowcharts… the process is ingrained in my very cells. This guide is like following a flowchart. I still can’t identify every flower… but my accuracy is improving!
Over the weekend, I was sitting on my mom’s back patio, surveying the yard, wondering when the thunderstorm that was brewing was going to let loose. Along the fence some white flowers were poking their heads up. Oh no! Another flower for which I had no name… and my flower guide was at home. So I picked one. I don’t usually pick flowers… I usually remember where it is and plan to come back with my guide. Since this one was in danger of predation by the lawn mower, I picked one.
When I got home, I turned to the inside front cover of my Newcomb’s guide: 6 regular flower parts, basal leaves only (code 2), and the leaves were entire, not toothed or divided (code 2). This gave me my 3-digit group number: 622.
Now, I turned to the number 622 in the Locator Key for my next set of clues: Leaves narrow, with white flowers… looks like my flower will be on page 334.
On page 334 I read, “flowers over 3/4 inches wide”… There it is! The first flower on the page: Star of Bethlehem. I think… Let me read the description… “Backs of the petals green with white margins.” Sure enough. I’ve found my flower. The asterisk means it’s an alien.
If you are a wildflower junkie and a beginner you gotta own this guide. It takes a little practice making it work, but it is well worth it… In the long run, it saves me lots of time and frustration.
Of course, the easiest way to identify a flower is still to take a photograph to an expert and say, “What’s this?” But sometimes that just isn’t possible.