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 Flower Types | Leaf Arrangement | Leaf Types

Identifying Wildflowers with this Key

There are many ways to find the identity of the plants you see in the wild. Many people just try to remember what the flower looks like then flip through illustrated guides and look at the pictures for a match. This is tedious but it can work well for very distinct, showy plants. Others take field guides into the field. The technique sounds appropriate but I find that one can spend hours on a single plant and then often not positively identify it. Making some notes and a quick sketch takes only a few moments. Then one can move on to find other flowers and take back a permanent record of the plants to use later to identify them. Bringing home notes and then reviewing them with reference books in hand is a great way to prolong the enjoyment of an outdoor experience and it gives you unlimited time to make an identification. Very localized plants may not appear in general guides. I have had plants in my notes for years before discovering their identity. Who knows, you may find an unknown species or a rare variant. That is a good reason to include the exact date, time, habitat and location in your notes. Remember that many plants are only above ground for a brief period and some only bloom at a certain time of day.

Botanist know the features (sometimes microscopic) that group plants into various scientific classifications and can identify plants unknown to them in reference books use various technical keys to eventually lead to the particular plant. Lesser mortals such as myself find references designed for the scientist who has a vast knowledge of plant terms and species to be frustratingly slow to comprehend. The system used here is designed to be easy to use by anyone who can take a few field notes and/or sketches of the flowers they find. The drawback to this key is that it only resolves the search to a list and seldom to an individual plant and in some cases the list will be long. To aid in identification the list is ordered by the when the flowers first bloom and there is an indication of the most common flower color. .

Using this system

In order to use this system you will need to know three basic characteristics of a plant:

(I give a detailed explanation below.)

Beyond these four features, you may need any number of details to make a positive identification. Closely related plants may differ only in very obscure details. Fortunately most plants can be identified at least to the genus level without noting to much detail. I recommend that in addition to the four basic characteristics you need to categorize the plant you also note:

Which plants are considered Wildflowers?

The term ‘wildflowers’ is very general. All flowering plants that grow in the wild are not considered wildflowers as the term is used here. Trees are generally not included nor are mosses and, of course, non flowering plants such as ferns will not be found in this index. Introduced exotic and domestic plants are included only if they have become somewhat naturalized in the wild. Shrubs and vines are included in this key.


Flower Types

Irregular Flowers

Flowers with parts, petals or parts resembling petals, that do not exhibit radial symmetry are considered irregular. There are some gray areas here as in the case of violets, which may appear to have five parts, but, are considered irregular. In most cases, the distinction is clear.

Symmetrical parts

Plants with flowers that do have radial symmetry are categorized by the number of parts; rays, petals or petal like parts. The parts may be joined in a tube, of varying lengths, and be of any shape so long as they are arranged around a center axis. Count the parts and note the number. Flowers with 7 or more parts are grouped together and flowers with a highly variable number of rays are included in the 7 or more rubric even if they seldom or never have 7 or more parts.

Indistinguishable parts

Many flowers do not have regular petals or sepals that are visible with the unaided eye. These are classified under this rubric. There is a gray area here when it comes to very small flowers as a person with very sharp vision may see flower parts where others do not.


Leaf Arrangement


If the leaves occur singly along the stem the plant is said to have alternate leaves. In most cases one leaf will be on one side of the stem and the next more or less on the opposite side of the stem but this may not always be the case.


If there are two leaves more or less opposite each other along the stem the plant is said to have opposite leaves.


If three or more leaves are arranged in a circle around the stem the leaves are said to be whorled.

Basal only

If the leaves only appear at or very near the base of the plant the plant has basal leaves. If the plant has real leaves along the stem it is not ‘basal only’ even if most of the leaves are basal. Small leaflets along the stem don’t count.

No apparent leaves

These plants appear to have no leaves at all at the time of flowering.

Leaf Types


Entire leaves are leaves with smooth edges.

Toothed or lobed

The leaf may be clearly toothed along the edge or have slight waves or be lobed deeply and it will fall into this group.


Divided leaves are divided into two or more separate leaflets. These are often called compound leaves.

*At the bottom of each category listing you will find a listing of plants from other categories that, due to plant variations or ambiguous features, may appear to belong in that category.

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© 1999

Daniel Reed