New Field Guide Simplifies Wildflower Identification

New Field Guide Simplifies Wildflower Identification

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura & Hal Mahan

Naturalists from beginners to professionals are celebrating the publication of a new wildflower guide. Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast covers all of North Carolina (including the mountains) along with South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania. This new book describes and pictures more than 1,200 species of plants including perennials and annuals and both native and naturalized non-natives. It also includes a color-coded range map for each species, depicting where it is common, rare or absent.

Nature lovers pride themselves on being discriminating field guide users, especially here in eastern North America where we have such a broad choice of books to inform our enjoyment of the natural world. There are guides not only for flowers but for insects, butterflies, trees, ferns, reptiles and amphibians, birds, rocks and minerals, and even the night sky. The topic with the largest number of guides is birds, probably because bird watching is such a popular pastime.

The term “field guide” refers to the idea that a book is small enough to be carried into the field—the location where it will be used. Several early field guides for flowers and birds were published in the late 1800s, but our modern concept of a field guide emerged in 1934 with the first edition of A Field Guide to the Birds by famed artist and bird expert Roger Tory Peterson, a book that is currently in its sixth edition and remains the most popular bird guide. His invention of the Peterson “system,” where look-alike species are illustrated on the same page with arrows pointing to the distinguishing features, revolutionized bird identification.

Field guides for plants are more complicated endeavors, simply because the number of species, especially in our mountains, is so vast and diverse. The area covered by Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast has approximately 6,200 species of higher plants. This begs the question of how to make the subject approachable in a small field guide.

Beginners will enjoy that the new book is organized by flower color, with the page edges colored as well so that you can skip quickly to that section. However, if you wish to approach with a bit more attention to the plant’s features you can use a simple “Key to Wildflowers,” where you look at obvious features such as number of petals, leaf type and leaf arrangement to take you to the correct page. This turns wildflower identification into a game. Armed with some basic knowledge about plant anatomy (there are pictorial glossaries on the inside cover), you can identify a common wildflower on your own. And, believe us, when you use this kind of process of identification, you are much more likely to remember it in the future, as opposed to having someone simply tell you the name. Speaking of the name, this is the first wildflower guide we have seen that uses the Latin, or scientific, name as the primary name for each species and includes a common name as smaller subtext. This is a more accurate system since there may be many common names for the same plant, but only one currently accepted Latin name.

Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast will become our most recommended book for wildflower identification. We congratulate and thank authors Laura Cotterman, Damon Waitt and Alan Weakley for creating this important new resource for nature lovers.

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.

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