Wildflower Identification: There’s More To Learn Than Just The Name

I like to take photos when I’m hiking. I always have the intention of looking things up in my field guides when I get home, but I don’t always live up to it. Part of me thinks I don’t really need to know the name of things to enjoy them. But identifying the flowers in photos from a recent hike reminded me that there’s much more to know.

On a rainy day in early August, we took a hike along the north fork of the Big Thompson River in Colorado. There were wildflowers everywhere, so I took lots of pictures, including a photo of a wild rose hip covered with orange powder. When I got home, I was determined to find out what the flowers were called, so I got out my field guides and got to work.

While some of the flowers were hard to identify, a few were easy to recognize. I had forgotten that the pink spray of flowers is called Fireweed (Chamerion augustifolium). To my delight, my field guide had lots more to tell me about it. For example, it is one of the first plants to grow back after a fire, which how it got its name. Dispersed by the wind, the seeds will grow in recently burned areas, or disturbed soil. Since we saw it all along the river’s banks, I’m assuming that repeated flooding provides the disturbed soil the seeds prefer.

Spray of pink wildflowers. Fireweed (Chamerion augustifolium). Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Fireweed (Chamerion augustifolium). Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Another pink flower we saw turned out to be Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). A close relative of milkweed, it produces a thick milky juice in its stems and leaves. The toxic juice can cause hot flashes, rapid heartbeat, and fatigue, and insects avoid it as a result. Dried stems of this dogbane can be peeled to make strong cord. They are also used as nesting material by orioles.

Pale pink bell-shaped wildflowers with green leaves. Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). Photo by Kit Dunsmore

One flower I could name in the field was the Wild Rose (Rosa woodsii). The orange powder I saw on the rose hip is apparently a type of rust fungus (order Pucciniales). The rains we had early this year are part of the reason there were so many wildflowers to photograph. But apparently, they are also the reason for the fungus, which loves high humidity.

 Wild Rose (Rosa woodsii) hips with rust fungus. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Wild Rose (Rosa woodsii) hips with rust fungus. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

When I got out my field guides, I was interested in learning the name of each flower and perhaps how it related to other plants. But by good fortune, I learned much more. Now I am eager to try to identify all the different berries I took pictures of. Finding out their names will be satisfying, but the real fun will be the unexpected things I discover.

Do you like to identify wildflowers? Do you enjoy learning? What things have you learned from field guides that surprised you?

The field guides I used:
Mammoser, Dan, with Stan Tekiela. Wildflowers of Colorado Field Guide. Cambridge, MN: 2007. (This is the one with lots of fun extra info in it.)
Borneman, Marlene and James Ells, Ph. D. Rocky Mountain Wildflowers. Golden, CO: 2012.

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