Identifying Wild Flowers
By Mike Raine
Identifying wild flowers can be very frustrating and is certainly not as easy as just taking a book with you and lying down in the grass for a while. If you take a picture to bring back home you invariably miss some details out or the flower doesn't quite look like the ones in the book. In this top tips I want to try and steer you away from some of the common errors people make.
First of all you need to build up a good collection of wild flower identification books. Those which are limited to the habitat you will mostly be visiting will be the most useful, then you'll find books organised by colour to be a great next step. By the time it gets to following botanical keys, of which there are some very good ones on line, you'll need some specialist information and I'll point you in the right direction below.
The best way to identify wild flowers is to take a photograph, then you can work in the comfort of your own home to identify the flower, you can use a range of books and the internet and it avoids picking potentially rare flowers.
Taking Photographs for Identification
Take a photograph of the flower, the habitat and the leaves (this may mean three photographs). Modern digital cameras can take excellent close up photographs but do try to get an over view of the whole plant too. Try to eliminate wind movements and camera shake. Again modern digital cameras are excellent at this but you can make sure by using a small tri-pod, the self timer and making a wind break. To pick out the detail of the flower you can put some white card behind it and for extra detail add a ruler to the image. Be aware most compact digital cameras actually take a better picture in the shade rather than full sun.
Key Features to Photograph or Note:
Is it sandy, mountain, bog, river side, in water, dry, grassy, rocky, acidic, lime rich, shallow soil, scree, deciduous woodland, coniferous woodland, coastal or hedgerow? Photograph the plants setting and use as many of the above words as you can to describe the habitat.
If the plant isn.t in flower than it will be much more difficult to identify. Make sure that it is the flower you are looking at. The flower comprises the petals and the stamen, underneath the petals are the remains of the bud, these are called sepals and can sometimes be easily confused with petals.
Watch out for seed pods these can easily be confused as odd looking flowers and not many identification handbooks have pictures of seed pods. Generally if you squeeze the seed pod it will contain seeds.
The colour of the flower should be obvious though be prepared for some differences in shade, look around the location for other specimens of the same species, are they all the same shade? Or even the same colour? For example Milkwort is a common flower on the grassy uplands and it can be white, blue or lilac.
When using biological keys you may need to know some other scientific names Flowers which are plate like, cup or bell shaped are known as actinomorphic and the petals will all be very similar. E.g. tormentil, butter cup, harebell, daffodil, water avens. Zygomorphic flowers are flowers such as such as Orchids, Eyebrights and Violets which have petals of different sizes. A third group is compound flowers these are those flowers where numerous small flowers are tightly grouped together to form a head. E.g. scabious, sheep.s bit, daisy and sunflowers.
Leaf arrangement: Make a note of how the leaves are arranged on the stalk. The most common form of leaf arrangement is when single leaves are arranged either spirally or on alternate sides, along the stem. Leaves can also be held in opposite pairs or in groups of three or more, in which case they are referred to as whorled. Rosette plants and plants with leaves emerging from underground have little or no stem. Leaves of rosette plants are produced at ground level like on a dandelion.
Hairs: Look closely on both sides of the leaf for hairs. Sometimes the hairs are hard to see and a hand lens could be used to look for them.
Leaf Shape: Cut leaves are those in which the blade is separated into lobes by slits, as if the leaf had been cut with scissors. An example of a plant with cut leaves is tormentil. Divided leaves are split into separate leaflets such as in wood sorrel. Linear leaves are long and narrow. A rough rule of thumb is that if the leaf is more than 10 times longer than it is wide then it is described as linear. Simple leaves have a simple blade which may have lobes or teeth, but is not divided into separate leaflets.
Leaf length: Measure the length of the leaf.
A petiole is the botanical name for a stalk. Some leaves come directly out from the stem without a distinct stalk. Be careful as sometime the stalk can be quite small.
Checking Your Identification
It is easy to make mistakes so make sure you check your result. Be sure to look at things like how rare the plant is, were you lucky to find it or are you wrong? Check the area in which the plant grows. If it is something odd is it a garden escapee? Check your picture with an online image search to compare it with other flowers in the species.
And finally; be patient. You will have some knockbacks; you will find you are looking at sepals and not petals. You will find you are looking at a gall instead of a berry. You will find your specimen has a petal missing. You will find your id book has a poor photo or drawing. You will get home and find your image isn.t quite as good as you thought. Stick with it; it can be very rewarding, good luck.