Fooled By Color: Wildflower Identification

This week I decided to identify the wildflowers I took pictures of on a rainy hike in early August. Some were a snap to identify, like wild rose and cow parsnip. But one in particular, a purple flower from the Aster (Asteraceae) family, has turned out be much harder than I would have guessed, requiring reference to several different resources and a new definition for purple.

Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum); photo by Kit Dunsmore

Identifying wildflowers ought to be easy. Unlike birds and butterflies, flowers stay put. You can take photos and examine them as much as you want. But past experience has taught me that wildflower identification can be tricky indeed.

Trying to identify yellow asters, for example, is a nightmare. There are a million of them. My guides are organized by color, and the most common flower color is yellow. Many yellow wildflowers look like little daisys or some kind of sunflower, all of which are in the Aster family. Even when I have all the necessary details, I can end up with flowers I can’t identify.

One field guide’s index by color: Yellow wins!

But my aster was purple, so I didn’t have much to look at. There were only seven asters in the purple sections of my books*, and only three of them that might be the flower in my photo. Additional images on reputable wildflower sites convinced me that none of these was right. Maybe purple asters weren’t that much easier than yellow ones after all.

Showy or Aspen Fleabane (Erigeron speciosus speciosus… I think). Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Then, while looking up other flowers I’d photographed, I came across an aster in the pink section of my guide that seemed like a good fit: Showy or Aspen Fleabane (Erigeron speciosus). The description says the flowers can vary from light pink to light purple. I’m a little surprised they put it in the pink section, because the flowers in the photo are definitely lavender. Maybe this flower is commonly seen in pink and they just didn’t get a photo of that. Or maybe they wanted to fatten up the pink section of the book.

Whatever the reason, the pictures of one variety of this particular fleabane (Erigeron speciosus speciosus) on the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service site looks like a good match. The information about range, season, and altitude that I found on Wildflower Search also matched up with where we saw this particular flower.

While I think I got there in the end using my trusty field guides, I hadn’t thought of looking for my purple flower in other sections of the book. I discovered that the color classifications can be loose indeed, that some purple wildflowers can be found in the pink, blue, or even white section. So my tip for wildflower identifications: don’t let the color limit your search.

What tools do you use to identify wildflowers? Which resources do you like best? Have you ever been fooled by a flower’s color classification?

*The field guides I used:
Mammoser, Dan, with Stan Tekiela. Wildflowers of Colorado Field Guide. Cambridge, MN: 2007.
Borneman, Marlene and James Ells, Ph. D. Rocky Mountain Wildflowers. Golden, CO: 2012.

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