Monday, March 2, 2015

A field guide to wildflower field guides

Over the weekend, I temporarily put aside the "I can do this myself" part of my personality and asked for help via Twitter. I'd been going around in circles  for a couple of days trying to identify a plant we picked up last year at a "support your local butterflies" event. Another plant we got at the event I clearly remembered as swamp milkweed.

monarch butterflies on deer-browsed Northern Plains Blazing Star
monarch butterflies on deer-browsed Northern Plains Blazing Star
Photo by J. Harrington

However, the one pictured above with the two monarch butterflies on it I thought the donor had called "bee balm." At least that's what was stuck in the back of my mind. The plant in the picture and the picture of bee balm in my resources were in the "close but no cigar category." A quick review of Stan Tekiela's Wildflowers of Minnesota Field Guide yielded close to matches with the Rough Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis) and not so close with Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya) but neither matched the plant in the photo I had taken.  None of the photo's in the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern) matched the flower and the pattern of flowers on the stems I was searching for. Courtenay & Zimmerman's Wildflowers and Weeds didn't help,  nor did Moyle & Moyle's Northland Wildflowers. My favorite wildflower guide over the years  has become Prairie Plants of the University of Wisconsin - Madison, (Cochrane, Elliot, Lipke). Unfortunately, for my purposes, they have organized their plants by family, not by color. I threw myself on the mercy of my Twitter followers before starting to go through Prairie Plants page by page and, bless her, I got an answer from Molly. She suggested "one of the Liatris species (blazing star) or Spotted knapweed--Centaurea stoebe. The latter has a much looser head & sparser leaves than the former species do." She also pointed me toward an online guide I've used before. This time, I had just skimmed through the top level of pictures but hadn't done any deep diving. The online resource is Minnesota Wildflowers. They have a Northern Plains Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis) photo that matches the plant I've been trying to identify, but it's in the "growth following deer browse" section. [Please also note that the Latin nomenclature above seems to match two different English versions of the plant, Rough Blazing Star and Northern Plains Blazing Star. That may be the topic for a follow up posting.]

Here are a couple of other online field guides that I've found to be helpful:

monarch butterflies on deer-browsed Northern Plains Blazing Star
monarch butterflies on deer-browsed Northern Plains Blazing Star
Photo by J. Harrington

I wonder if one could take a facial recognition software engine and apply it to wildflowers and package the combination into a smartphone app. Otherwise, I may have to become more familiar with plant botany and leaf patterns and bracts and whatever. It's occurred to me that not knowing the key characteristics of a plant limits my ability to take representative photos, but then I'd forgotten about the deer that were browsing on our Liatris ligulistylis last Summer before the monarchs arrived nor had I yet learned how helpful and friendly folks at the "other end" of this internet thingy can be when it comes to sorting out what's living in our bioregions. Often, the best field guide is a real person.

Field Guide

By Cynthia Zarin 
The stars are pinned between the leaves   
of the trees, and love is only a harbinger,   
a regular Boy Scout handbook
of things not to do, and how to do other things,   
small chores you’d never think of,   
and supper gets cold on the table.   
But I can’t leave here without
taking you with me.
And the formal customs we once had,   
like wearing red during hunting season,   
are only signposts pointing the way   
in and out of the territories—
colored leaves floating on the water,   
hesitant, before the rains come.


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