Category Archives: Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

Bog Plants: Bog American-laurel

Photo of Bog American-laurel buds

At the same bog where I encountered Rhodora flowering in mid-May, the pink flowers of Bog American-laurel (Kalmia polifolia) could be seen alongside. I find this short shrubs' flower buds, which look like crown-shaped confections, to be even more attractive than the open flowers. The red fruit capsules which follow the flowers are also snazzy (see bottom photo).

Photo of Bog American-laurel flowers

Let's use Newcomb's Wildflower Guide to identify this plant, as we've done with others before. You start by answering the basic questions to obtain a 3-digit code.

Flower type: 5 Regular Parts (5--)
Plant type: Shrub (55-)
Leaf type: Entire (552)

Just a couple more questions. Are the leaves evergreen? Yes. Are the leaves under 1" long? No. This combination takes you to page 292, where you can identify your mystery plant as Kalmia polifolia (Pale Laurel is the common name given), another native member of the Heath (Ericaceae) family.

Photo of Bog American-laurel fruits

Bog Plants: Rhodora

Photo of Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense)

On several occasions this spring, I visited a local bog to observe some of the countless bird, insect, and plant developments that can be witnessed as the green season unfolds. On one such visit, portions of the bog were lit up with the showy pink flowers of Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense).

This shrub, when flowering, can quickly and easily be identified using the key in Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. You start by answering the basic questions to obtain a 3-digit code.

Flower type: Irregular Flowers (1--)
Plant type: Shrub (15-)
Leaf type: No Apparent Leaves at Flowering Time (151)

This combination takes you to page 104, where you can identify your mystery plant as this native member of the Heath (Ericaceae) family. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Newcomb’s for Beginners: Asters

Here in New England, a showy group of plants commonly known as Asters graces the landscape in late summer and fall. While many of these species share similar characteristics, it's easy to sort out many of the species with the help of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. For example, take the following plant:

Photo of Flax-leaved Stiff-aster

We start by answering the basic questions to obtain a 3-digit code.

Flower type: 7 or more Regular parts (7--)
Plant type: Wildflowers with Alternate leaves (73-)
Leaf type: Leaves Entire (732)

With this code, we can flip to the appropriate section of the locator key, which asks just one more question related to flower color before forwarding us to page 368.  Here we find an Aster genus description that fits our plant. If we'd like to know which Aster this is, we'll need to flip to the special Aster section of the locator key. If you suspected this plant was an Aster from the start, you could've skipped right to the Aster section of the locator key.

Photo of Flax-leaved Stiff-aster

From here, we can narrow things further. The larger leaves of our plant are (1) not both heart- or arrow-shaped and long-stalked, (2) obscurely toothed or entire, and (3) narrow or narrowly lance-shaped; and finally, our plant has flower heads 3/4 - 1  1/2" wide.  Asters with these qualities are found on page 458-461.

Browsing the drawings and reading the written descriptions on these pages lead us to one match: Stiff Aster (Aster linariifolius)*.  I found this short, perennial species growing in full sun in a large colony in dry, sandy soil.

Photo of Flax-leaved Stiff-aster

I understand why newcomers to Newcomb's method may be a bit intimidated at first, but through a series of (typically) simple choices, it is possible to narrow down countless species to a single likely match.  Give this a try on other Asters, and see if you agree.

For more tips on using the Newcomb's identification method, see my related Newcomb’s for Beginners posts: Intro, Common Dandelion, White Clover, and Common Barberry.

*Note: Newer plant manuals, like Flora Novae Angliae by Arthur Haines (free online version at GoBotany), have reclassified native New England Asters into various genera within the Astereae family. Stiff Aster (A. linariifolius) has been reassigned to the genus Ionactis (or Stiff-asters) and is referred to as Flax-leaved Stiff-aster (I. linariifolius).  Other native Asters have been relabeled as American-asters (genus Symphyotrichum), White-asters (genus Doellingeria), and Wood-asters (genus Eurybia). Tricky, tricky.

Medicinal Weeds: Red Clover

With alternate, divided leaves and clusters of irregularly shaped flowers, using Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, we shouldn't be surprised to find this plant on the same page where we found White Clover two weeks ago. Of the three other Trifoliums listed on page 60, we find the plant that matches: Red Clover (T. pratense) – a plant with flower clusters that appear stalkless and leaves which often show prominent white chevrons.

Photo of Red Clover

Red Clover blossoms (or entire tops as pictured above) make an excellent wild tea. Herbalist-author Gregory Tilford says Red Clover is “an herb that helps free the blood of toxins and systematic waste while providing an assortment of nutrients critical to healthy blood” (From Earth to Herbalist, p. 174). In short, he describes the plant as a “medicinal food”.  Only fresh or properly dried material should be used, as wilted Red Clover can mold and contain harmful toxins.  Of course, it is critical to do your own research and come to your own confident conclusion regarding identification, proper preparation and personal health considerations prior to consuming any wild plant.

Newcomb’s for Beginners: Common Barberry

Another reason I recommend using Newcomb's Wildflower Guide is that in addition to wildflowers, the guide covers many flowering shrubs and vines. Say you find the following flowering shrub in your travels, and you'd like know its name.

Photo of Common Barberry

Simply answer the usual questions.

Flower type: 6 Regular parts (6--)
Plant type: Shrub (65-)
Leaf type: Leaves toothed (653)

Since only a handful of plants share this group code, the Locator Key refers us to page 354 with no further questioning. In short order, your unknown plant is found and named: Common Barberry (Berberis vulgaris). As you'll no doubt discover if you practice keying out plants with Newcomb's method, not every identification is this simple as some group codes are shared by many pages of plants that must be narrowed down, one choice at a time.