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Skill Builder: Name That Flower

Knowing how to use a field guide is like carrying a botanist in your pocket.

By Kiki Corry

“It’s got yellow petals, pointy leaves and some brown in the center.” This description fits so many of our Texas wildflowers. Sunflower? Daisy? Aster? Dandelion?

Wildflowers are simpler to describe and remember when you know their names. The easiest and best way to become acquainted with wildflowers is by expert identification. Not many of us carry botanists in our back pockets, so we must find other ways of naming our favorite blooms. Field guides are the next best things. A multitude of field guides can be purchased or borrowed from libraries, so there is no excuse not to get one and go have some fun.

Before you take your field guide for a test-run, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the way it is organized and laid out. Some even have a brief explanation of how to use the guide. It is worth the effort to read how the author intended the book to be used. Some are sorted by color, others by plant family and others by region or habitat type. If you have a choice, the color-sorted type is the easiest for the beginner.

Look at how the pictures are grouped. Are all the pictures clustered for easy comparison on a few color pages? Or does each flower have its own page with photo and text together? There are advantages to each.

With book in hand, get as close to the flower as reasonable. First look at the general shape and color of the flower. Flip through the guide looking at pictures to find similar ones. (Yes, just looking at pictures counts as using the guide!)

Now, rather than thinking about what the flower is, eliminate as many things as you can that it is not. If the photo is on the same page as the text, check the region and bloom time and general size. If it doesn’t occur where you are, shouldn’t be blooming now or is a different scale, flip to another page. If the photos or pictures are grouped apart from the text, look closely at the shape of the flower and leaves and how they are arranged on the stem.

Many common wildflowers are a variation on the daisy/sunflower theme. If it has a heavy disk center or clusters of petals, you most likely have a member of the composite or aster family, such as sunflowers and dandelions.

When you look at the leaves, notice whether they come out all along the stem or are clustered at the bottom. Do the leaves emerge across from each other or are they staggered down the stem? Also look at the general shape of the leaf — is it long and narrow like a feather, or do the veins come out from the middle like fingers from the palm of your hand? Is it rather plain, or frilly?

Those are the details that will help you distinguish one from another. When you have eliminated all but a few on the page, turn to the text to check region, bloom time and dimensions.

When you have a likely candidate, read the full description of the flower and plant. If the language is too technical, read the nontechnical part aloud, focusing on the overall size and appearance of the plant. If you don’t find a match on the first try, file that one in your memory and try again. Remember, part of the fun is working out the puzzle while enjoying the sun on your back and a book full of beautiful pictures.

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