This site is intended as an aid in the identification of native and naturalized plants, particularly those found within a 50 mile radius of Iowa City, in Southeast Iowa. Iowa is positioned in the midst of the tallgrass prairie region of the midwest and the plants of that ecosystem will feature prominently in the species pages presented here.
Until recently, books in the forms of guides, keys, and manuals (see bibliography) were the only way to identify unfamiliar plants, unless you had access to an expert botanist. And while each of these have their own virtues, the internet has provided a new resource for comparing and identifying plants. Webpages can share most of the virtues provided by books and add a few conveniences as wellimportantly, the ability to link directly to references and other sources and the inexpensive convenience of using as many illustrations as desired. Also, in my opinion, it is easier to prepare photographs using the RGB color model for screen viewing than the CMYK model preferred for press printing - especially for retaining detail in the very saturated colors provided by some botanical subjects. This being said, I have seen excellant color work done in CMYK.
Be forewarned, this is an amateur site! There may be identification errors (despite my intentions to the contrary). For the most part I will summarize information and link to additional sources. If you find errors please contact meyou can use the contact link in the navigation bar at the top of the page. The next few paragraphs discuss a few observations about the problems, techniques, and conventions concerned with plant identification.
Many of the plants on this site have been identified from photographs. To identify plants from photographs is often difficult because important anatomical details that distinguish one species from another may not be visible in the photograph. This problem is lessened when the photographer knows which details are important and takes the trouble to photograph these details separately and over the growth cycle of the plant (See standards discussion 1, 2). We hope to accomplish this on the species pages on this site. While photographs have a certain appeal because they can provide colors that are subtle and realistic in the context of the environment of the subject at hand, artists who specialize in sketching or painting botanical subjects also have something important to offer. In addition to field work they can work from preserved herbarium specimens as well as fresh material, and on a single page, they can show every important (macro or micro) anatomical feature and even the same features in different developmental stages, often without the necessity of several field trips. It is, after all, the line drawings in the Britton and Brown manuals (mentioned below) that makes these volumes so appealing to many botanists. But, for the most exacting work, plant biologists prefer to make identifications from actual plants and not illustrations. When you work directly from the plants you see only what is there - nothing more, nothing less.
A collection of plants used for study and identification is called a herbarium. Herbarium plants are individually dried and preserved on separate sheets along with a note tag detailing the plants specific properties. Sometimes important details are very small so a hand lens or a microscope is necessary to make an identification. Often identifications are made with the assistance of a botanical key (the USDA is experimenting with a free on-line key called "SLIKS"). Manuals such as Gray's Manual of Botany or Britton and Brown's Illustrated Manual of Botany include keys and additional descriptions of the plantstheir use requires an extensive botanical vocabulary and they may not be current with the latest thinking in taxonomy. The Flora of North America (FNA) is a work in progress which, when completed, will have the most current taxonomic information in book form (30 volumes). It is also developing the (FNA website). Less demanding are the photographic field guides, such as the Peterson field guide and the National Audubon Society guide for wild flowers. These are handy to take into the field, but be sure you get one that matches your area of the country.
Plants have common names (often several) that differ from place to place and it sometimes happens that the same name is used for several very different species. For scientific purposes it is important to know which species you are working with and for that reason, it was necessary to set up a formal system of plant nomenclature . Under this system, each plant species can retain its common names but (ideally) it must have only one scientific name which is referenced to a specific type specimen. Occasionally, two different botanists will assign a scientific name to the same species and arbitration determines which will be the official name. Any other names, if they have become well established, may be retained as synonyms. The proper scientific name for a plant is a Latinized binomial consisting of the Genus (which is capitalized) and the specific epithet (which is not). There is only one (proper) binomial for each species. For example Dodecatheon meadia is the species name for the plant shown on this page. Once a binomial has been presented properly in text, further commentary may indicate the genus name by abbreviating it to just its first (capitalized) initial and a period, D. meadia, for example. Sometimes included, is the name or initial of the person who first identified the plant. Dodecatheon meadia L. indicates that the plant was first named by Carl (Carolus) Linnaeus. By convention, the scientific name is italicized or underlined when it is printed. Underlining is most convenient for hand written and type written text. Italics were (and are) the choice of formal publications and are easily produced on todays computerized documents. Another convention worth knowing about is the use of sp., spp., and ssp. Because the word species is both singular and plural, it is proper to refer to "one species" or to "many species". If you know the genus of a plant—Rhus, for example—but not its species, you can refer to it as Rhus sp.(a single species). Rhus spp. would indicate several unnamed species in the genus Rhus (i.e. spp is plural). Ssp. is an abbreviation for subspecies, a rank below the level of species. There are taxonomic ranks (taxons) above the level of Genus and these are indicated on each species page on this site. There are also ranks below the level of species (usually not mentioned on this site). These include; subspecies, variety, subvariety, form, subform and clone. This site will not use author attributions and will only rarely mention taxons below the binomial. It will however, link to more authoritative sites that provide that information. There is another protocol under development called LSID (Life Science Identifiers) which hopes to make internet searches more efficient by the use of unique LSID names for each species. Also, plant databases will sometimes use acronyms or symbols as a shorthand to locate species. For example, one database combines the first three letters of the genus name with the first three letters of the specific epithet (in all capital letters). Hence, the symbol for Dodecatheon meadia is DODMEA.
Plant taxonomy is the demanding science of identifying plants and categorizing them (placing them into groups or "taxons") and it has come a long way since the taxonomy of Linnaeus. Every effort is made to create taxons which accomodate both the anatomical and evolutionary relationships between groups of plants. Taxonomy, or systematics as it is sometimes called, is in a constant state of revision. Periodically a new system of categories will become popular and you have to learn a new set of relationships. Wikipedia offers a list of such systems and a short history of plant systematics. Cladistics is a more recent effort to relate species by genetic evidence (See also, clade).
This site will use the same classification used by the National Plant Data Center (the Cronquest system). Each species page on this site has a block of information called the "classification hierarchy". It shows the hierarchy you see in the USDA Plant Profile link. However, each of the taxons have been linked to Wikipedia which describes other ways these taxons have been categorized. The Flora of North America (FNA) in both book and web form is currently under development and (in my opinion) provides the best description of plant species characteristics. As species descriptions become available a link will be provided to the FNA from the species pages on this site.
A knowledge of plant structures and the attendant jargon is important for plant scientists of any sort. Most manuals and keys include a glossary of terms and some books are dedicated entirely to terminology (some are mentioned in the Bibliography section). There are also increasing numbers of on-line aids. For example, Plant Anatomy by James D. Mauseth and Glossary of Taxonomic Terms provided by the U. of Delaware. If you are new to the rigors of plant identification I think you would enjoy Thomas Elpel's book "Botany in a Day". Although it has a slight west coast bias in its plant examples, it is very helpful by teaching family characteristics which will apply in all parts of the country. Plus, it includes medicinal properties of plants which will probably not be covered on this site. If you are an experienced plant person you will like to know about the "Integrated Taxonomic Information System" (ITIS) which is a synthesis of several large biological databases and perhaps the ultimate effort to create consistency in taxonomic nomenclature. It also serves as the taxonomic backbone for the very ambitious "Encyclopedia of Life" (EOL).
Plants can be studied as: 1) individualshow structure relates to function, for example; 2) evolutionary waypoints in the organization of life as it responds to the demands of changing environments over time; and 3) members of communities of organisms effecting and effected by the climate and geology of specific locations (habitats). Such interacting communities are called ecosystems. Ecosystems are sometimes referred to as "super-organisms". As such, they depend on the reciprocations and feedback mechanisms of their various partsas an organism depends on the interactions and controls of its organs, tissues, and cells; an ecosystem exists by the interaction between organisms, climate and geology.
The study of ecology concerns itself with ecosystems. And increasingly, the health of ecosystems is becoming the concern of a group of citizens and scientists generally referred to as conservationist or environmentalists. Plants (as well as other sensitive organisms) serve as indicators of the health of ecosystems. A large diversity of species and a high proportion of "native" species compared to "alien" species is regarded as a healthy sign. As the proportion of aliens increase, especially those regarded as invasive, they outcompete the natives and reduce the species variety in the ecosystem. Ecosystems are considered degraded when the diversity of the organisms that they support is reduced. For more on plant identification and their role in ecosystems see: Flora of the Chicago Region by Wilhelm & Rericha (2017) and The Emerald Horizon by Cornelia Mutel. The first provides a means to evaluate ecosystems and the second, a history of native ecosystems and advice on how to preserve them.
Most of the links on this site will take you off site. Use your browsers back button to return. Links can be short lived, especially at universities which may change them with each new semester. Nevertheless, links will be provided as we go along. If you find a dead link you can probably "Google" your way to something even more current. The page of "Useful Links" (only available from this link or the one on the bibliography page) is worth checking from time to time. You can check on progress at this site by using the navigation bar at the top of the page.